MSN to close chat rooms
LONDON, England (CNN) -- Microsoft says it will drop chat room services in 28 countries next month, in a move it says will ward off pedophiles and junk e-mailers.
But tech analysts said the changes would help the software giant get rid of users who don't pay and are not contributing to the company's bottom line.
"They're trying to move people to their paid subscription sites," said Ian Brown, director of the Foundation for Information Policy Research, a technology think tank. "They are shutting down services for which people are not paying and getting a good bit of P.R. out of it."
In a statement, the Redmond, Washington-based Microsoft said it made the decision following the growing abuse of the Internet, particularly in unsupervised, anonymous chat rooms.
The company pointed to a rise in the use of junk mail known as spam and "unsolicited and inappropriate material, particularly with regards to children." (Full statement)
MSN spokesman Matt Whittingham told CNN: "Recently we have become increasingly concerned about the level of inappropriate communication, including spam, the grooming of children by pedophiles, and sexually explicit language and imagery in chat rooms.
"We have looked at the matter very carefully and we are closing down chat in Europe to protect our customers against those inappropriate communications."
There is some concern, however, that Microsoft is not the correct authority to take the policing of the Internet upon itself and this latest move will serve simply to divide the Internet community between the haves and the have nots.
Will Doherty, from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told CNN the decision would contribute to the "digital divide" and create online "gated communities" where only people who can afford to pay can chat on the Internet.
Microsoft's online service, MSN, will cut back its chat rooms in most of Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Asia and Latin America, from October 14, where millions of Internet users will need to find other online forums.
However, it will continue to offer unsupervised chat room access to users who subscribe to at least one other paid MSN service in the United States, Canada, Japan and Brazil, the company said.
In those countries MSN says it will have customers' billing details and identities on record and can track down suspicious users if need be.
Popular but often abused
Online chat rooms are one of the most popular tools on the Internet and one of the most frequently abused.
There have been a series of cases where pedophiles have used chat rooms to "groom" youngsters for sexual abuse.
But Microsoft's decision to close unsupervised chat rooms has triggered a heated debate among free speech advocates, children's rights groups and Microsoft rivals. (Fierce debate)
Children's rights groups have been quick to comment, with John Carr, of the childrens' charity NCH, telling CNN the decision was "good, but sad."
"I think what we are seeing here is Microsoft saying it is turning its back on the old anarchic Internet with all the attendant worries and dangers with pedophile abuse and spam."
Microsoft says it will still be possible to communicate in the 28 affected countries through its Hotmail and messenger services.
The company has about 8.6 million subscribers for its Internet service.