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Kewney on MSN Chat
Opinion Guy Kewney is probably the UK's best-known computer journalist. He has his own site, our news partner, the marvellous Newswireless.Net.
Here's a small coincidence for you. Microsoft is going to charge users for mobile MSN mail, and is going (try to) to charge other Instant Messaging systems a royalty for access to MSN Instant Messenger. And - in unrelated news, of course - Microsoft is closing down its free chatrooms. To protect children, naturally.
Is it really anything to do with protecting children? Or is it to do with money? Or is it something else - something far sillier? Like, embarrassment?
Many would say that it has, of course, nothing whatever to do with protecting children. Arguably, it will have the opposite effect.
MSN was always a blatant example of Microsoft anti-competitive actions. It was launched because Bill Gates came to realise that AOL was a bigger force on the Net than Microsoft, and he "invested" heavily in the Microsoft Network.
Say what they like, it was an attempt to crush AOL. It was a successful attempt, insofar as it crushed other major online service providers - who remembers Prodigy, or The Source? - but AOL survived.
Now, its purpose either achieved or abandoned, reality dawns on Microsoft. MSN makes no money, and indeed, loses millions every month; and so it's clawback time.
One thing Microsoft would like, is a monopoly on instant messaging, and MSN has a messenger service. Trouble is, other people have written software that works on Microsoft IM, and simultaneously on other systems like Yahoo and AOL, and IRC. So can Microsoft stop them? It has been trying, but without much success. So it's trying to charge them.
"Running an [IM] network is expensive," says Lisa Gurry, group product manager for MSN at Microsoft. "We can't sustain multiple other-people's businesses, particularly if they charge for certain versions of their software. We're introducing licensing processes for third parties like Trillian..." - report from Joris Evers, of IDG News Service.
Yes, it is expensive, but why didn't someone think of that when building up the IM system? What was its purpose - to make money? or to crush AOL Instant Messenger?
Rhetorical question, isn't it... and of course, the next step, will be to charge for instant messages. And why not?
Microsoft has already announced that mobile Hotmail will cease to be free to mobile users. A small fee, to be sure - maybe less than $30 a year, maybe more.
But Microsoft's plans for IM are intimately tied to its plans for smartphones. It provides MSN messenger "out of the box" for the Orange SPV smartphone, for example. As long as you're in range of a GPRS data feed, you can use IM instead of texting; and it's much better than MMs (multimedia messaging) too.
How long before Microsoft points out that "it's expensive, running IM, and we're saving our users a lot compared to MMS, and we think it's only right... we can't sustain... "?
And what about the kiddies?
Well, the facts about child abuse are scary. Most children who are abused, sexually, are abused by close family, however, not by strangers who "groom" them in chat rooms. Closing chat rooms may be a great idea if it stops children being abused - so will it?
The evidence of the last two years is that actually, a moderated chat room is a great place to catch predatory paedophiles. You put a moderator online, and they pose as an innocent pre-teen, looking for excitement. And (as we've seen in the occasional headline) the paedophile who is pretending to be a pre-teen kid himself, is taken in, and arranges to meet the policeman - and shows up with a gun.
If Microsoft goes ahead and closes down MSN chat rooms, the effect will be that kids stop looking for chat rooms, right? Hardly! - there are too many. And some of them are moderated, of course, but others are not.
Microsoft could, if its prime concern was care for the kids, pay moderators to maintain good order in its chatrooms. That, of course, would cost extra money. No doubt Microsoft "can't sustain multiple chatroom moderators..."
The sad thing is, I'm not even convinced that this is simply a money issue.
Publishers are typically middle-class people, with middle-class friends. They like to boast about what they do for a living. Richard Desmond, who made millions publishing pictures of naked Pakistani girls in "Asian Babes" now wants to be a respectable publisher of the Daily Express in the UK - an "upmarket" newspaper. He's not alone.
Here's what MSN's director Gillian Kent told the Daily Mirror. She said she was appalled at the language used on teen chatrooms.
She said: "I have a 10-year-old nephew and a four-year-old daughter and I was concerned how best to protect them in the future from such sites." And she added: "It has reached the point where the problem has become too serious to ignore and we have to take action."
I think that's the heart of the matter. A middle-class woman, who thinks children under ten shouldn't use words like "f..k" even amongst each other. It's OK, apparently, for Tony Blair's PR man to say it, but this woman can't face her friends over the coffee cups, and admit that she runs the place where little children use four-letter words.
A moderated MSN would mean that MSN acknowledged that kids do use strong language, and that MSN would have to justify allowing most of that. So MSN, money or not, can't moderate its chat rooms. It would be too, too humiliating for MSN directors.
And if it means that some kid can't go to a moderated MSN site and goes to a rogue freelance chat room instead, and gets abducted?
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