Harry Potter and the chatroom of secrets

JK Rowling is promoting her new book with a webcast and chat forums. But, asks Debbie Davies, how safe are they for children?
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The Independent Online

Millions of young Harry Potter fans in schools and at home are expected to log on to the internet tomorrow to watch JK Rowling read from her latest adventure to an audience of school children at the Royal Albert Hall. Why? Because the publicity-shy author decided that by going live to the internet in a Madonna-style webcast, rather than appearing on radio or TV, she would reach the biggest possible audience.

But it's not just its size - children from 34 countries are expected to join in - that makes this event different. An author reading to children and hoping to sell some books is nothing new. But in place of the usual mix of reading and author-led creative-writing workshops that happens all the time in schools, children watching Rowling's remote book-reading will be able to type messages and read what others are thinking in a Harry Potter chatroom.

For Microsoft, which is hosting the webcast on its MSN portal website, the opportunity to use Rowling to promote internet chat and instant-messenger software as safe family entertainment has been too good to miss. For the past couple of weeks it has been running a competition to win "golden tickets" to join Rowling at the Royal Albert Hall. To enter, all you have to do is download Microsoft's Messenger software. Microsoft says that the ability of children to talk online is the "magic of MSN Chat". MSN chatrooms will be open early on the morning of the event, and help will be available so that everyone can download what they need.

But some are questioning the wisdom of using Harry Potter to promote chat. Children as young as six read the books, and despite the specially designed book jacket to save adults any embarrassment at reading a children's book, the core audience remains eight- to 14-year-olds. Microsoft recommends chat as suitable for those over 13 - but it has no way of verifying the age or the identity of anyone using its chat and instant messenger services.

The software giant has already faced bad publicity after its MSN Chat service was caught up in the Michael Wheeler case. Wheeler, convicted last month of sexually abusing young girls, had used MSN Chat and posed as a 13-year-old boy to meet and "groom" young girls over a long period of time. Microsoft knows that for MSN to benefit from its tie-in with Harry Potter, the interactive event must be safe for children. "We've seen some cases recently that have made us extremely conscious of child safety on the internet," says Matt Whittingham, the group marketing manager for MSN UK. His problem is finding the balance between safety and freedom of expression, and developing the technology to deliver that balance.

Rowling will be taking questions from children, some live from the internet, but this will satisfy no more than a handful of fans. Chat, by comparison, empowers everyone watching the webcast to take part. If children want to chat about Daniel Radcliffe (below), who plays Harry in the films, then providing they don't say anything sexually explicit, they will be free to do so. Whittingham is considering a safe "auditorium" mode of chat to run alongside the live webcast. This allows Microsoft to vet messages before they are posted, and people in the chatroom will not be able to contact each other directly to set up private chats.

This will interest the Home Office task force on child protection on the internet, which was set up in March 2001 in response to concerns about the possible risks to children in the wake of a number of serious cases involving paedophiles and the internet. The task force, which is currently looking at how services such as chat and instant messaging can be monitored, has agreed "good practice" with the internet industry. This includes the need for clear information about the product offered, and relevant safety tools.

MSN says that safety messages will be prominent, but Michelle Elliott, the director of the children's charity Kidscape, is concerned. "Paedophiles will just love joining an online chat about Harry Potter," she says. "They know they will be talking to children."

But Bloomsbury is "delighted" about the event according to Sarah Beal, the children's marketing director. She was having more problems filling the Royal Albert Hall: several cash-strapped schools that had been invited could not cover the cost of tickets and travel and have dropped out.

"We'll probably end up with just less than 4,000 children," said Beal. Add an estimated 500 million online, and it's not a bad audience for a children's book-reading. But the lingering question is: who else will be watching - and will they really be interested in Harry Potter?

The live webcast, for "witches, wizards and children", is at 4-5pm tomorrow; "adults and muggles" are being asked to wait for the second showing one hour later; www.msn.co.uk/harrypotter