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.

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