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'Many of the inappropriate adults are journos', says CEO

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Updated Teen social network site Habbo Hotel is going to allow its users to chat again soon, as its parent company removes the restrictions imposed after allegations of inappropriate sexual content.

The CEO of Finnish firm Sulake said on Friday that Habbo would stage a "Great Unmute" to allow users to tell the site what it wants to see there and to prove to the world that the online community is not just filled with the graphic sex conversations, paedophile grooming and pornographic avatar behaviour uncovered by a Channel 4 News investigation.

"We want to work with our users to define and deliver a fully protected environment as well as a creative user experience," chief exec Paul LaFontaine said in a canned statement.

"That’s why I am announcing ‘The Great Unmute’. It’s going to provide a chance for our users to create a conversational tidal wave, telling us what they want and showing the world that our global community contains millions of responsible and proud users who have a positive experience on our site," he added, promising more details soon.

Children who are members of Habbo Hotel have been banned from chatting on the virtual world and social gaming site since Channel 4 News revealed that their reporters, posing as kids, were asked to use their webcams to undress, sent lewd messages and asked to make contact off the site via Skype or instant messaging.

But Sulake said that despite the conversation ban on the site, Habbo users have been holding "silent candle-lit vigils" in support.

Sulake has maintained that it was as shocked as everyone else to discover what was happening on their site, which, although aimed at kids over 13, has children as young as nine signed up.

LaFontaine said on Friday that he decided to mute conversation on the site “as soon as we saw the Channel Four News report on Tuesday evening".

"This has had a massive business impact, but the safety of our users is non-negotiable. We must maintain our focus on the quality of interaction within the Habbo community, and not the quantity of visits we receive," he said.

He added that the report was a "global wake-up call" not only for his company but also "our poorly regulated industry".

"We fully intend to actively participate in finding a regulatory solution that will protect our users and ensure the long-term reputation and future of the social gaming community," he said.

When asked by The Register what exactly Sulake meant by "regulation", a spokesperson said:

Sulake is not suggesting government regulation, which would be impractical and impracticable on global communities such as Habbo. Instead Sulake is suggesting that there should be a shared understanding and subscription to a clear and agreed international standard of best practice for social and online gaming communities. This would mean that sites like Habbo would not be given awards for their safety standards by one body and condemned for unsafe practices by another.

Sulake might be keen to shift some of the blame onto its industry as a whole and governments as well, but it has been accused of just not moderating the site well enough.

LaFontaine even said last week that the firm was working "to ensure that best-in-class moderation and detection systems are in place", which rather suggests they might not have been in place before.

The CEO's statement also took the time to have a dig at journalists reporting the story, who he claimed have been offering money to Habbo users in return for any inappropriate experiences they might have had.

"If there are individuals who have been affected by inappropriate conversations, they may well be vulnerable and certainly will not benefit from self-interested approaches and offers of cash for case studies," he scolded. ®

Update

Habbo Hotel parent Sulake has got in touch with The Reg on Monday 18 June to say that the "Great Unmute" may not take place on the actual Habbo Hotel site. "The Great Unmute will be an event for Habbo users, but may take place on a different media channel to the actual Habbo site," the firm said.

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