The myth of Satan's web
Microsoft’s decision to close its online chatrooms yesterday for apparently providing a safe, social haven for paedophiles and their naive prey was universally praised by children’s charities and campaigners. On the face of it, it was an act of supreme social responsibility - a company recognising that it could not control its forum for adolescent interaction in a safe way and therefore shutting it down.
But when businesses play the paedophile card, whether it is Microsoft or the News of the World, it always leaves a scintilla of suspicion lurking in the minds of those more cynical than Carol Vorderman. My suspicions were doubly aroused when Gillian Kent, of MSN UK, managed to slip in two mentions of Microsoft’s alternative talk medium, its Messenger service, during an interview on the Today programme.
Microsoft’s decision to close its unprofitable and potentially litigious chat rooms may have the halo effect of disappointing a number of paedophiles for whom the forum is a low-effort alternative to visiting the local swimming baths or joining the Scouts or becoming ordained into the Catholic church.
But to pretend that it was a primary motivation for the move is disingenuous and, what’s more, reinforces the disappointingly widely held belief that the internet is a tool of Satan.
Microsoft, like all those of us with free talk areas on their websites, is hosting an expensive online party from which it could never hope to turn a profit. When Microsoft launched its first internet browser, Explorer, I visited its Redmond “campus” where a rueful head of internet admitted: “I am running the division that Bill Gates said we would never have.”
The open nature of the web, its unpredictable and uncontrollable proliferation of ideas and open source software was anathema to the world’s leading operating systems company. But like all previous obstacles, Microsoft embraced the challenge and crushed the Netscape opposition to produce a democratic way of accessing the web which only the technocracy abhorred.
It is not therefore entirely surprising that a company which found the web a terrific threat should ham up some of the more startling dangers of the medium. It is true that if you let your children have unlimited and unmonitored access to the web they might encounter all the same unthinkably dreadful things they would if let loose in a strange city. But the parental strategy for dealing with this has to be to apply the same kind of vigilance and apocalyptic warnings which accompanied “stranger danger”.
One could easily conclude from Microsoft’s admission that their chatrooms are full of appalling pornographic spammers and that David Hope, the Archbishop of York, was right when, in 2000, he described the internet as “evil” and said it would “create a society without a soul”.
It is littered it seems not just with gurning paedophiles, but with spotty-faced science students “stealing music”; mad terrorists swapping bomb recipes; snake-oil salesmen desperate to increase the size of your penis; adverts for Viagra, Russian brides and cheap loans. A refuge for the socially dysfunctional and the sexually perverted. When Gary Hart was sentenced to five years in jail for causing death by dangerous driving after his car careered on to the rail tracks at Selby, newspaper reports pointed to the fact he had spent the previous evening talking to a woman he had met on the internet - as if this was the signifier of a moral turpitude which made his crime all the worse.
Social connectivity through the internet is an awesome thing. It is beginning to undermine the vision of an “atomised” society which so many sociologists and theorists, including Noam Chomsky, feared that television would create. Whereas TV, we were told, sapped the will to collective action, the internet refacilitates it. If television killed the art of conversation, the internet restores it. If you have a physical or mental disorder, however rare, your research materials and support groups are available online. You can shop without using your environmentally unsound car. You can even construct a case for a just war, if you download the relevant thesis.
Microsoft’s move to monetise its chattering classes is understandable, and I have as much sympathy with their predicament as a business as I do their efforts to safeguard my children - though I imagine most parents would think this was their responsibility. It is quite possible, as several competitors have pointed out, that Microsoft’s alternative methods of providing “chat” will prove no safer.
Bill Gates the philanthropist has had a positive week in terms of global public relations; his transformation from anti-competitive leviathan to a good global citizen is almost complete. But there is no doubt that a company which at heart was profoundly uneasy with the concept of the internet has found the best possible reason for retreating from part of it.
The wider problem of who our children might talk to, either on or offline, is no closer to a satisfactory resolution and the power of the internet to deliver good as well as evil is largely undiminished.
Emily Bell is editor-in-chief of Guardian Unlimited—Guardian Unlimited Â