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Microsoft closes chat rooms
- Software giant says forums have become haven for sex predators

London, Sept. 24 (Reuters): Microsoft Corp today said it was shutting down its Internet chat rooms in 28 countries, saying the forums had become a haven for peddlers of junk e-mail and sex predators.

But the announcement was seen by some analysts and on online message boards as having more to do with business and revenues than a moral crusade and would have no great impact on the seedier side of the chat room culture.

“I don’t think this signals a huge amount,” said Michal Halama, an analyst with research firm Gartner. “People at Microsoft are human beings. They have social concerns. But I think this is a business decision. Chat rooms in themselves do not drag in a whole lot of money.”

Politicians, children advocacy groups and law enforcement have called for the clean up of the darker corners of the Internet, where sexual predators and spammers lurk.

As of October 14, Microsoft will shut down its MSN chat rooms in 28 countries including Europe, West Asia, Africa and much of Asia and Latin America.

It will keep the discussion rooms open for subscribers in the US, Canada and Japan who are considered more accountable because their billing details are on record with Microsoft.

Yet figures on chat usage are difficult to measure in a market that contains so many large Internet brands and niche forums. But Microsoft’s decision, if taken in isolation, is not expected to have much of an impact as chatters have plenty of choice where they can pitch up their virtual soap box.

One online newsgroup posting summed up the matter. “MSN’s chat rooms are no big loss themselves, but you fool yourselves if you think this in any way prevents any group from communicating. Free, open chats will always be available on the Internet,” read one message posting.

While nobody thinks Microsoft’s decision marks an end to online chat — one of the most popular and frequently used functions of the Internet — others wondered if some of the more unseemly elements of the discussion boards would force brand-conscious web firms to follow suit. “If there’s a legal and moral concern, we’re bound to see others review their presence in the chat space,” said Jan Dawson, an analyst with UK research firm Ovum.

Some of the biggest players in Internet chat, AOL Time Warner’s Internet unit, British Internet service provider Freeserve and web portal Yahoo said the Microsoft decision would have no bearing on their chat policies.

Microsoft has made a concerted push to increase trust among users of its software and its Internet services, vowing to stamp out viruses that compromise its Windows operating system and minimise the flow of junk “spam” e-mails that clog up its web-based e-mail service, Hotmail. Geoff Sutton, general manager of MSN Europe, said in ditching chat the company would promote usage of its instant messenger service.

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