2003-09-26 11:30:03 -- Many children's charities have welcomed the move, but some technical specialists and internet campaigners say it could simply shift the problem to less regulated online chat systems.
MSN, Microsoft's internet division, said the threat that paedophiles could use its chat rooms to locate vulnerable children who they might go on to abuse had forced it to close them down.
"The straightforward truth of the matter is free unmoderated chat isn't safe," Geoff Sutton, MSN's European general manager, told Reuters.
MSN chat rooms in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Asia and Latin America will be shut down on 14 October. Subscription only chat services will then be introduced in the US, Canada and Japan only. Microsoft says these will be more secure because users must provide identification in order to pay.
Microsoft will also continue to provide its MSN Messenger chat client, which links up individual computers for conversation.
But some experts argue that shutting the chat rooms will only shift the problem elsewhere. "You've got the original form of chat, Internet Relay Chat (IRC), which is really impossible to stop and doesn't cost anything," says Peter Sommer, a computer forensics expert at the London School of Economics, UK.
IRC is an open protocol for setting up a chat server to which anyone can connect using a desktop computer.
There are scores of IRC servers located around the world, Sommer says, making the system almost impossible to regulate. He adds that the open standards that make it so easy to communicate online also make the internet inherently difficult to control.
Online competitors like AOL, Yahoo and the UK's Freeserve have also said they will continue to provide free chat services.
Some observers have suggested that MSN's decision might be partly motivated by economic factors, in particular the cost of running a free service. "Anyone trying to run a safe chat service is going to have a commercial problem," says Sommer.
Yaman Akdeniz, director of UK internet policy group Cyber-Rights & Cyber-Liberties, says educating parents and children about the dangers of any unmoderated form of communications should be a priority. He says closing down these chat room systems will do little to address the overall problem of paedophilia and worries that it encourage people to think there are simple technical solutions.
"Today we are talking about chat, tomorrow it will be another form of communications," Akdeniz told New Scientist
But Sommer believes the action could still have some positive consequences. "It has given some publicity to the dangers," he says. "But in the end it's up to parents to watch their children. I don't see any way around that."