Online chat rooms – “Shut up”

26 02 2006

Sep 25th 2003
From The Economist print edition

What is the real reason Microsoft is planning to close its free chat rooms?

INTERNET chat rooms, always garrulous, are even more abuzz than usual. Microsoft’s MSN online service plans to close its free chat rooms in over 25 countries next month due to problems caused by spam and paedophiles, keeping open only those in America, Canada, Australasia, Japan and Brazil. Most users will have to subscribe to an MSN service—and so be traceable via billing details—to participate. Elsewhere, the decision to close the real-time text-discussion forums will affect millions of users.This being Microsoft, pundits raced to find ulterior motives for the software company’s actions. In some cases, the move requires users to become MSN customers in order to participate in what is now free, giving rise to speculation that Microsoft is using the cloak of corporate citizenship to hide its financial motives. The chat rooms never generated a profit from user fees or advertising revenue.

Though Microsoft’s finances may benefit, this misses the bigger issue—and bigger danger. Microsoft has launched a “trustworthy computing” crusade to protect intellectual property, is scrambling to patch software code that is vulnerable to viruses, and is working with industry and government to find ways to reduce spam. Closing the chat rooms is in line with the firm’s goals of making the internet safe for commerce and friendly for kids. By shifting users into its online service, it raises the height of the gate to its walled garden.

This comes at a price. Protecting minors from online dangers is necessary. But Microsoft’s approach goes against fundamental aspects of the internet, notably its openness and anonymity, that have helped it to thrive as an instrument for free expression. Many industry experts think that the firm could have found other solutions to chat-room problems than eliminating them altogether.

Yet the move has a degree of inevitability about it. When the internet first went mainstream, it seemed to be beyond the jurisdiction of governments. That view is now acknowledged as folly. But a question remains over what legal authority can make internet rules that will actually work, and then enforce them. In this case, the private sector is pursuing policies to uphold what it thinks is the public interest. Ultimately, on the internet, freedom of assembly depends on who owns the meeting hall.

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