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The UK’s online child protection agency, CEOP, reacted with alarm today at the latest manifestation of the new trend in random online chat, Omegle.

CEOP is concerned that there is no online panic button for users who find themselves getting into situations that they find uncomfortable or abusive. This isn’t surprising given that it has been on Facebook’s case about this issue for a long time; and Omegle is very cosy with Zuckerberg’s social networking behemoth.

The service allows individuals to “meet new friends” randomly pairing up users into one-on-one chat windows. Those accessing the site are given the option of choosing between pure text chat and video interaction by webcam.

“Omegle is a great way of meeting new friends,” says its website. “When you use Omegle, we pick another user at random and let you have a one-on-one chat with each other. Chats are completely anonymous, although there is nothing to stop you from revealing personal details if you would like.”

That doesn’t wash with CEOP. “We know that young people will take risks online, perhaps more so than the real world as the screen can provide the illusion of anonymity and safety,” a spokesperson said to us. “Yet we know that posting inappropriate pictures, using webcams and giving access to personal information can often leave young people vulnerable to attack.”

In the interests of research, we tried out both flavours of Omegle. On our intrepid researcher’s very first text interaction our “stranger” ventured “asl?” – age, sex, location – as an opening gambit. When our researcher wouldn’t play that particular game, asking instead whether she was really supposed to give out that sort of information, the conversation was disconnected.

On our second attempt the researcher found herself speaking to someone who claimed to be based in Uganda. However, as the conversation quickly shifted to discussion of the weather, which they described as “hot and wet”, we have our suspicions.

On disconnecting from a third conversation, an entire chat log – including a graphic description of anal sex – suddenly appeared above the disconnect button.

Next we tried the video service. Our researcher clicked and disconnected from the video service some 25 times. On the very first connection, before she spoke a single word, she was treated to the riveting display of a young man with his penis exposed, masturbating.

In all, one in five sessions opened up on shots of young men masturbating, with a further three apparently preparing to do so. Three sessions began with an invitation to our researcher to expose her breasts – although expressed in rather more colloquial language. One began, yet again, with the supposedly verboten internet question: asl?

Only one of the 25 appeared to be female.

The final session was a chat with an older man, who appeared not in the least bothered to find himself suddenly chatting up someone who was easily 30 years his junior.

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