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.
Last month, Microsoft announced that it was closing internet chat rooms in 28 countries (the US is not one of them) because of its concerns that paedophiles were using them to "groom" young children online. "This is a very positive step forward and will help close a major supply line for sex abusers," said Chris Atkinson, a policy adviser to Britain's National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, who was described in reports as an 'internet safety expert', even though the above quote suggests to me either ignorance or naivety about how the internet actually works.
There are several reasons why Microsoft's decision won't accomplish what child advocates hope for, and might, in fact, make the internet a more dangerous place for children. 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 the grand total is zero so far).
Indeed, the more responsible companies shut down their chat rooms, the more likely it is that children (and those who prey on them) will gravitate to unmonitored sites operated by less scrupulous firms.
Internet chat rooms are simply vehicles for conversation. Closing down chat rooms because of the possibility that they might be used by paedophiles is like ripping down telephone lines because they might be used by obscene callers. It denies a valuable service to millions of people because of the possibility of abuse by a handful -- which might be acceptable if it solved the problem, rather than simply shifting it somewhere else.
Microsoft has succeeded in shielding itself from whatever legal liability might have resulted from paedophile activity in its chat rooms. It has avoided the expense of monitoring them. It might even have scored some short-term PR points, but it has done absolutely nothing to make the world a safer place for young internet users.
What has been hailed by some as an example of corporate social responsibility is, in fact, its opposite: an abrogation of responsibility and a passing of the buck.
Paul Holmes is editor of Holmes Report.
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