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Chat sites must take care of their kids

LunarStorm of opinion

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Interview The companies behind social networking sites are failing in their duty of care by not protecting their most vulnerable users, according to Matt Colebourne, CEO of digital society site, LunarStorm. He argues that companies like MySpace need to bite the bullet and put proper security systems in place, even if that means spending a fair chunk of change.

"It is as though these sites, which in many cases were developed for adults, are ignoring the fact that they have younger people online. MySpace, for instance, has not done its job," he reckons, referring to the case of a 14-year old girl who is suing the company for millions of dollars after she was allegedly sexually assaulted by someone she met on the mySpace network.

Simply listing proscribed behaviour to children and teenagers and expecting them to toe the line is naive: "You can't expect teenagers to follow the rules, and you have to presume that until someone is an adult, you don't always know enough to be able to make decisions that are in your own best interests. That is the presumption of law. So you have to take a proactive approach to monitoring, and have people patrolling the forums."

LunarStorm, which is aimed specifically at the 17 to 19 year old age group, employs security staff to keep tabs on what is going on in its chatrooms, and recruits volunteers to moderate each space and report anything untoward.

But it doesn't want to be Big Brother. After all, when you get a bunch of teenagers talking, there will be some frank and no doubt fruity discussions, and not all of these will be the kinds of things parents want their kids talking about. But until it crosses the line and becomes illegal or dangerous, Colebourne is happy to stay out of it.

"What we look for is content or behaviour that might cause harm - physical or mental - to come to one of our users," he says. "We are not the moral arbiters of this space."

The biggest problem, he says, is not the most high profile, but is bullying by the peergroup. "Let's not overstate the case. The threat [from paedophiles] is very small."

But it does exist, so how do you deal with it? Like MySpace, LunarStorm requires users to register and state their age. But again, like MySpace, there is no way of verifying the age listed is genuine (we signed up to LunarStorm as a 19-year-old, to see if we could - yep, no problem).

"Criminals will always misrepresent themselves, so you have to look for behaviour. We do some assessments of the kind of language people use because language is indicative of age - it is hard not to trip up if you are pretending to be younger than you are."

The company also has its back-end systems monitoring for indicative behaviour. This could be things like repeatedly searching for a very specific type of person to chat with, then lurking rather than contacting them. But also the behaviour profiles of the different age groups on the site are pretty well known. Anyone falsely claiming to be 19, for instance, should stick out like a sore thumb.

"Fixation is a pretty well known paedophile behaviour," he says. As for the rest? "Even I don't know what the other indicators are. We don't want anyone to be able to subvert our systems, so we keep the details secret." ®

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