RealTime IT News

MSN's Chats: Shuts Most, Charges Others

Microsoft Corp. has made a corporate decision to change its policies governing the use and pricing within its online chat rooms.

Whether it's because of the potential legal problems generated within chat rooms, or the fact that the live message boards are a drain on resources and profits, Microsoft said it's time to change the way it monitors and charges for use inside the forums.

Microsoft is closing down Internet chat rooms in 28 countries around the world, and will soon begin charging customers on a subscription-basis in some markets, if they want to participate in any of their online chat rooms.

The move is bound to gain the support of child safety advocates, who have raised concerns about the presence of sexual predators in online chat rooms.

But online chat rooms are also a drain on resources for Microsoft, and many say online chatting is becoming an unprofitable nuisance for the company.

Microsoft says it is completely shutting down its online chat service in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Asia and most of Latin America.

Starting on October 14, Microsoft will move its online chat rooms in the United States, Japan and Canada to a new subscription-based service within MSN. The new service will require every user to provide personal identity information, credit card billing details, and to pay a small monthly fee, as well.

"The company states that only paying customers that give MSN a credit card number would be able to participate in unmonitored chats. The stated reason: To be able to identify and, presumably, curtail what Microsoft considers offensive behavior and to cut down on spam," writes Joe Wilcox, analyst at Jupiter Research, a division of Jupitermedia, the parent company of internetnews.com, in a recent report.

Microsoft on its MSN.co.uk Web site said the reason for its chat policy change is because it wants "to help protect MSN users from unsolicited information such as spam and to better protect children from inappropriate communication online."

"The stated reason for the change is a loaded gun waiting to go off in Microsoft's face; it's the worst kind of well-intended public relations gone awry. The whole point of chat is anonymity, and this is a longstanding Internet tradition. More importantly, even the suggestion that the company might identify chatters through credit card information carries HUGE privacy implications for which the company could get rapped by customers, competitors, privacy groups and even federal regulators," adds Wilcox.

And Wilcox said Microsoft's actual strategy for eliminating free chat is rooted in a drive to eliminate unprofitable services.

Microsoft is also interested in seeing its MSN users migrate to instant messaging through its MSN Messenger product, rather than to communicate through free, unregulated chat rooms. Microsoft has said it has 22 million MSN Messenger customers in Europe, and 100 million worldwide.

"My take on the real reason: Microsoft has been on a long track of taking free MSN services and charging money for them," writes Wilcox.

While Microsoft may be making it online chat policy change for economic and legal reasons, there is no question that children around the world have been lured by sexual predators through chat room discussions.

According to Cyberspace Research Centre, in its July 2003 report, one in five children aged nine to sixteen frequently use online chat rooms. More than half of those childrens have participated in sex-related chat, and a quarter of them have received requests to meet face-to-face, according to the research. The study goes onto say that one in ten of those children have had face-to-face meetings following a discussion in an online chat room.

As Microsoft continues to face regulatory scrutiny in Europe and elsewhere around the world, the choice to remove its online chat rooms could be motivated by political pressure by non-governmental organizations (NGOs), according to one European group.

The London Internet Exchange put out a statement on Wednesday saying that "NGO pressure groups have mounted a sophisticated political campaign to hold ISPs (and other providers of Internet communications services like MSN) responsible for everything bad that happens on the Internet. Now we see that the ultimate result of continually demanding the impossible of ISPs is not that the Internet suddenly becomes perfectly safe, but that companies are simply forced to close their services down."

"MSN can't be faulted for this decision. Like all providers of Internet services they have been under huge pressure from the child protection lobby. But society will be poorer if Internet services are gradually removed. The child protection lobby recognizes the dangers of children having Internet access but sometimes seems to ignore the enormous benefits that the Internet brings to society as a whole, adults as well as children," the London Internet Exchange said.