I don't think the Internet is either safe or dangerous. It's just a medium. — Abhinav Goyal

BANGALORE'S CYBERCAFS may be going about their business as usual, but Microsoft's decision to close down its free chat rooms has upset many users. Microsoft, notorious for getting on the Internet bandwagon quite hesitantly, has taken this decision in an apparent move to prevent paedophiles from preying on chat room users. However, users doubt that this move will make the Internet any safer.

Urmila Biswas, a student of Christ College, says: "The other websites are still working, and they still have chat rooms." Some of these other websites have pointed out that closing down this popular service will only drive users elsewhere. They propose that a better response would be a closer partnership between service providers, parents, and responsible users to create a safer environment in these chat rooms.

They also contend that shutting down popular services will just displace the activity elsewhere. These new unregulated spaces may, in fact, increase the danger associated with chatting.

Many users are also suspicious about the reasons behind the move. Microsoft's online chat rooms were free and required expensive infrastructure, and the revenue nil. Microsoft is underplaying this aspect; users are being encouraged to adopt its instant messaging software, MSN Messenger. Chat enthusiasts in the U.S.A., Canada, and Japan will continue to have moderated chat rooms available only to subscribers. These moderated chat rooms are meant to allow only those users whose identities are known (through their subscription) and are hence meant to be safer. Another angle lost amidst the heated debate is the question of potential litigation against Microsoft. If it is proved that a paedophile contacted victims through its chat rooms, Microsoft could be sued for secondary liability, for enabling the crime.

A casual look at the reasons for this shutdown throws up broader issues of parental control, a thorny issue in Bangalore. In a city dotted with countless cyber-caf�s, cheap, unsupervised Internet time is the norm. Even in homes, the advent of cable Internet means that people are staying online longer. Parents of younger users rarely monitor this extended time.


Those who do, feel that not enough is being done. Ganesh S., working in Honeywell, says: "Exposure to unwanted material (outstrips) exposure to good sites. I think the answer (lies in) more than monitoring." He feels that children should be advised on what sites to visit, what services to use, and what information to divulge in cyberspace. When the identity of the child is revealed, the chances of her receiving objectionable material are higher. Parents do seem to think of chatting as an unnecessary pastime where nothing constructive happens.

Young users themselves echo the feeling that monitoring is not the only answer. Urmila Biswas says her mother has a pretty good idea of her Internet usage, but her dad really doesn't know. A few of the teenagers interviewed felt that the Internet is definitely becoming a more aggressive place; users being propositioned online has become common. The responsibility, however, does not end with the service provider or the parent.

Abhinav Goyal, 24, a frequent visitor to chat rooms till a few years back, says: "I don't think the Internet is (either) safe or dangerous. It's (just) a medium." Abhinav, who was averaging an hour a day in chat rooms at his peak usage, feels that the responsibility must lie with both parties. Beyond the philosophical nature of his comment lies the fact that no matter how much monitoring is enforced, the ultimate control lies with the child. Parents may be de facto monitors; they may know how long the child uses the Internet, but sitting with her every second might be close to impossible. The answer then perhaps lies in information and awareness.

The general consensus seems to be that the Internet can be a safe place for children if they are aware of their responsibilities and the dangers prevalent in this vast space. Parental monitoring, though necessary, is only part of the solution.

The onus should be on making the ultimate users, the children, more empowered and informed. Shutting shop and passing on the responsibility doesn't seem viable to any of the people interviewed. Bangalore's users seem to suggest that the answer is not to stop children from chatting, but in chatting with them and telling them the right things.

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