Microsoft's Internet service, MSN, is shutting down its MSN chat service in over 25 countries. This involves the online chat rooms and not the popular MSN Messenger service.
The decision is in response to the growing concern about the safety of children who visit these chat rooms that are full of sexually explicit language, cyber sex and sometimes pedophiles.
Krishna Prasad, program manager, MSN India, told Net Guide, "We will start putting up notices on regional MSN Web sites from tomorrow. The move is mainly to prevent criminal solicitations of children through online chat discussions."
MSN is closing down its chat rooms in Europe, Latin America and most of Asia by October 14. In the countries where the chat rooms will still be accessible, MSN will change the method of accessing them to bring about more accountability.
MSN chat rooms in India are likely to shut down on, or before, October 1. The worldwide deadline is October 14 and the entire process is being phased out.
Why are they doing this?
Prasad explains, "We have heard much about inappropriate chat, child abuse and sexually explicit language in the chat rooms. Based on all this we have decided to shut down chat to protect our consumers against improper communication. The simple truth is that 'unmoderated' chat isn't safe."
An MSN release says it has worked with charities and government organisations on the issue of child protection online. MSN International has appointed its own child protection expert to co-ordinate technology and education initiatives across the world.
The other reason quoted by Microsoft is that online forums have become a haven for peddlers of junk email. The authorities, however, have no clear answer as to why they are shutting down the services only in certain countries.
MSN will continue to offer services to users in United States, Canada, Japan and Brazil, but with some restrictions.
Users here will need to sign up for at least one of MSN's paid services. In these countries it will have customers' billing details and identities on record. These will enable MSN to track down suspicious users, if need be.
How does this affect the users?
"Users can still use MSN Messenger as they were doing all the time," ensures Prasad, "There will be no restrictions on this".
Millions of MSN users who use the service regularly will be forced to switch to alternate online forums.
Their responses are varied. Some say they will simply switch over to other chat rooms. Others applaud MSN's move to protect children.
Says Shekar Sanyal, "My old college friends and I use MSN chat rooms regularly to discuss our lives and things in general. But now it's time to switch. There must definitely be other reasons. It's silly of MSN to shut down citing these reasons."
Mohammad Pasha, a programmer in a Bangalore based software company, approves the move by MSN and wishes that all online forums would follow suit. "Chatrooms are not like what they used to be in the early days of the Internet. They are all junk, porn, and abuse now."
Another programmer, Harpreet Singh, says, "We have been hearing so much about child abuse and child porn online. We only have to wait and watch if this move by MSN helps in any way. But there are millions of other chatrooms. Chat is one of the most popular tools on the Internet and it's not going to go away."
True. Raju Goyal, a student of Mumbai, says that if MSN shuts down, he will try other channels. Sandeep Gupta, a businessman from Delhi, says, "I'll miss the vibrancy of MSN chat rooms but I'll look to Yahoo! now."