Telcos move quickly to develop chatroom harassment code

Code expected within a few months

In a speedy response to the perceived risk of harassment of young people in text cellphone chatrooms, Telecom and Vodafone have committed to working on a code to reduce such dangers. A taskforce to evolve such a code has already been convened under the auspices of the Telecommunications Carriers’ Forum.

There is no firm deadline for the evolution of a code and as of last week no definite, or even vague, indications of what it might contain. “We’re fleshing out ideas at the moment,” says Telecom spokesman John Goulter.

A conclusion is, however, expected to be reached within “the next few months”. This is a rather quicker process than other matters that the TCF has been deliberating, such as number portability. That, however, is a matter of considerable cost, says Goulter, and the process is understandably more protracted. There are likely to be costs attached to the observance of a code for cellphone chatrooms, but they will be small, he says.

The chatroom controversy was sparked by sexual approaches made apparently by adults in a “teen” text-phone chatroom to a journalist pretending to be a 13-year-old girl.

Goulter says to his knowledge Telecom, like Vodafone, has had no complaints from real young people of harassment in the chatrooms.

The taskforce intends to examine a code which has already been evolved in the UK and one in the process of development in Australia, Goulter says. The part of the British code dealing with chatrooms seems mainly concerned to keep R18 material and other unsuitable "commercial" messages away from users under 18, by requiring access controls involving age verification. It says nothing about conversations between individuals, though it does allow access controls to be slackened if chatrooms are moderated. A moderated room is defined as one "where either a person or special technology is used to block personal details and keep conversation appropriate."

Moderation is one possible approach, says Goulter, but the exercise is at such an early stage that it would be premature to say that either age restriction or moderation is being considered yet.

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