Chatroom rivals attack Microsoft closure move

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The Independent Online

A man aged 22 pleaded guilty in court yesterday to gross indecency with a 14-year-old girl he met in a Microsoft chatroom, only hours after the internet provider announced that it was shutting its online forums.

David Hipperson, from Hitchin in Hertfordshire, told magistrates in Leamington Spa, Warwickshire, that the girl claimed she was 16. They met twice for sex, but he was arrested during their third encounter after the girl's parents became suspicious. The case was adjourned for reports.

The row over chatrooms deepened yesterday after Microsoft's announcement that it was to shut all of its UK-based chatrooms and allow only moderated chatrooms in nearly 30 other countries. Rival internet companies accused Microsoft of overreacting and failing to invest in protecting children. Tiscali, Freeserve and Lycos criticised the decision, saying it would simply force existing users to go to other chatrooms with "little or no protection".

A Freeserve spokeswoman said the operator was "disappointed" by the decision, and Microsoft's MSN arm would have been better advised to have invested in more people to monitor the online forums. "We know about the potential dangers of chatrooms and that's why we believe all responsible portals should invest in them [monitors]," she said.

Alex Kovach, managing director for Lycos UK & Ireland, said: "Walking away from chatrooms will only drive this underground. It is up to the big players such as MSN to offer 'safe' moderated environments. With 25 million people online in the UK, chatrooms are not going to go away." Lycos was operating only overseen forums. Tiscali, which operates a "Teentalk" chatroom that is overseen by three adults, said: "Shutting down chat is not the answer to child safety. Parents need to help their children navigate the internet safely."

Five million children use chatrooms in Britain, and police have estimated that one in five has been approached in some way by a paedophile. Research published by the Schools Health Education Unit last month found most girls and boys aged 12 to 15 went online without adult supervision.