PAUL HOLMES: In closing its internet chat rooms, Microsoft is merely passing the buck on responsibility

Sometimes, bowing to public pressure - or the pressure created by a noisy minority of the public - is the path of least resistance for large corporations. But that doesn't mean it's necessarily the right thing to do, in moral, pragmatic, or PR terms.

Sometimes, bowing to public pressure - or the pressure created by a noisy minority of the public - is the path of least resistance for large corporations. But that doesn't mean it's necessarily the right thing to do, in moral, pragmatic, or PR terms.

A decade or so ago, for example, McDonald's found itself targeted by consumers - including tens of thousands of schoolchildren - who wanted the company to abandon its environmentally unfriendly polystyrene clam shells. The company did so, despite the fact that many environmental experts believed the replacement cardboard packaging would create just as many problems. Now comes Microsoft, which announced a couple of weeks ago that it would shut down internet chat rooms in 28 countries (not including the US) because of concerns that pedophiles were going online and "grooming" young children, who could then be contacted and perhaps assaulted in the offline world. "This is a very positive step forward and will help close a major supply line for sex abusers," said Chris Atkinson of Britain's National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. Atkinson was described by reporters as an internet safety expert despite the fact that the quote above demonstrates either appalling ignorance or naivete about how the internet actually works. There are several reasons why Microsoft's decision won't accomplish what child advocates hope for - and may in fact make the internet a more dangerous place for kids. Chat-room technology is a genie that will not be put back in its bottle, no matter how many large "responsible" companies follow Microsoft's lead (and so far, none have). Indeed, the more chat rooms get shut down by responsible companies, the more likely kids (and those who prey on them) will go to unmonitored websites operated by less scrupulous firms. Internet chat rooms are simply a vehicle for conversation. Closing down chat rooms because of the possibility they might be used by pedophiles is like ripping down phone lines because obscene callers might use them. It denies a valuable service to millions because of the possibility of abuse by a handful - which might be acceptable if it solved the problem, rather than simply shift it elsewhere. Microsoft has succeeded in shielding itself from whatever legal liability might have resulted from pedophile activity in its chat rooms. It has avoided the expense of monitoring chat rooms. And it may even have scored some short-term PR points, but it has done absolutely nothing to make the world safer for young internet users. What has been hailed by some as an example of social responsibility is in fact its opposite: an abrogation of responsibility, and a passing of the buck.
  • Paul Holmes has spent the past 16 years writing about the PR business for publications including PRWeek, Inside PR, and Reputation Management. He is currently president of The Holmes Group and editor of www.holmesreport.com.

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