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The New Chat Rooms

chat rooms
Volume 1, Issue 2
October 2000

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The New
Chat Rooms

The phenomenon known as the "chat room" continues its evolution as a unique and controversial medium attracting billions of participant's worldwide.

Tom Spring of IDG reported in September, that according to Forrester Research, among North American online households, 16 percent participate in online chats at least once a week.

Last October a new element was added to the chat room with the arrival of actual voice communication. Associated Press reported on Oct. 18, 1999, that by using technology developed by Mountain View-based HearMe Inc., Internet users with a computer microphone and speakers could participate in vocal chats on Yahoo.

It further reported that along with Yahoo, HearMe had also provided similar voice capability for chat rooms on E! Online, and the St.Peteresburg Times.

In March, Erica D. Rowell reported in that Cahoots launched its interactive Web communications software that works on top of a Web browser and "provides instant messaging between groups or individuals, bulletin board posts, and oral chats. It even allows talking long-distance for free, as long as the recipient has the correct hardware and software to hear you."

The only drawback to live voice is that it requires a lot of bandwidth. Without the proper hardware to support it, it can be a slow and frustrating form of communication and more of a headache than it's worth. This is changing and will no doubt make a considerable impact in the future when the technology to support it is more widespread.

Video chatting is also part of the chat room phenomenon but again it requires specific technology in order to use. One company, provides video communication technologies and services for narrowband, broadband, and wireless networks. Eyeball Chat, enables Internet users to communicate face-to-face using a standard Web browser, a PC video camera, and a microphone.

There have been other new developments in the "chat room". Spring reported in his article that in MSN's chat rooms you can now download background music through a service called MSN Radio Chat. "When you're pouring on the charm in MSN's "Blind Date" chat room, a little Barry White in the background couldn't hurt, right?" Asks Spring. He reported that MSN is partnering with to add 40 musical genre channels to MSN's 40 chat rooms. The company uses Windows Media Player as its underlying engine to stream music so if you use Media Player version 6.4 or greater, no download is required, he reported.

There have been other businesses emerging to cash in on the the chat room craze. Alexandra Barrett of IDG reported in September about a new venture called FrogMagic that acts as an intermediary for US chat room participants who want to send gifts. It is a way to prevent a chat room participant's privacy from being compromised.

Barrett reports that "the gift giver visits the FrogMagic site, chooses the gift, and pays for it. FrogMagic issues a unique gift ID, which the site can send directly to the recipient by e-mail (you must provide that address). Otherwise, you can convey the gift ID to your friend through your chat room channel."

The recipient then takes the gift ID to the FrogMagic site and enters a mailing address, which remains private from the gift giver.

Besides developments in the chat room phenomenon itself, many businesses are starting to see the public relations potential of the chat room and are adding chat capability to their sites as a way to communicate with customers directly.

Rowell reported that for a monthly fee ranging from $50 to $250, depending on the level of service, companies wanting an official presence at their site can sign up for Cahoots and join the conversation communing at their sites. Rowell interviewed Gail Rice, Cahoots' vice president of corporate Communications who said, "the idea... is to structure a virtual experience along the lines of the physical one, where consumers can interact with other shoppers as well as store representatives.

If a company has a site representative, for example, the rep can provide customer support on the Web via text or voice, answering questions as people shop and expanding a real-world business practice into cyberspace."

In February Catherine Valenti reported on that according to The Cluetrain Manifesto, a new book from high-tech industry insiders Rick Levine, Christopher Locke, Doc Searls and David Weinberger , "Companies can now communicate with their markets directly. If they blow it, it could be their last chance,...businesses must adapt to the quick, new forms of communication the Internet provides if they want to survive."

She cites an example from the book of a conversation from an angry owner on a Saturn newsgroup. The man had complained about being given and then charged for services he didn't ask for when he brought his car into a Saturn dealership for an oil change. Other Saturn owners who had experienced similar situations also wrote in.

The online audience was eventually addressed by a Saturn mechanic who explained the company's policy on maintenance service to the group.

Valenti further reported that by doing this, Saturn had essentially responded to the fast-moving Internet conversation but according to the book, many other businesses haven't been as successful at responding in similar situations.

She wrote, "Companies can no longer stick to their old-fashioned marketing tactics when there is a whole world of people out there having discussions about them over the Internet, the authors argue."

The convenience of the chat room has begun emerging in other sectors of society as well. Associated Press reported on June 2 that two lawyers and a judge used an America Online chat room to discuss a civil lawsuit to save time and travel expenses.

Judge James L.Kimbler of Medina County Common Pleas Court was quoted in the article as saying, '"Increasingly, parties and attorneys using this court come from outside Medina County... "Making parties and attorneys come to Medina for pretrial matters drives up the cost of litigation and is time consuming."'

Lawyer Robert J. Dubyak, of Cleveland, about 30 miles northeast of the Medina County courthouse, and lawyer John T. Murray, of Sandusky, about 40 miles northwest of Kimbler's office, participated in the private chat on AOL with Judge Kimbler.

There have been numerous stories about couples meeting and falling in love on chat rooms. There have also been stories about people establishing long lasting friendships. In Dec. 1999, reported how Jackie Thorpe, who lives in California, and Pat Hughes, who lives in Colorado, had became old friends on the Internet, in an over-40 chat room.

Chat rooms provide a way for isolated individuals to make connections. Dianne Lynch reported on that the Rural Womyn Zone site is a place where rural women talk to each other.

The women who participate in the chats are farmers, ranchers, writers, activists, mothers and grandmothers. They live in places like Nova Scotia, Wales, Idaho and Ireland, she reports and "they have in common a life isolated by landscape and culture."

She quoted site founder Lynda Harper, who also manages a 300-head dairy farm, who said, "It turned into a virtual kitchen table where we get together to talk, make new friends, develop ideas for the Web site, and just generally discuss a wide range of issues."

Besides the positive aspects of chat rooms, there has also been a negative elements associated with them. Because of the anonymity of the Internet individuals think they can break the law and get a way with it. The reality, however, is that everything you do online can be traced.

Calvin Woodward reported in the Associated Press in May 1999 that "armed with search warrants, police are looking into the online activities of suspects, and sometimes victims, by seizing evidence from Internet service providers and finding material that people online never dreamed would end up in the hands of the law."

He said that during the aftermath of the Littleton, Colorado crisis authorities turned to AOL to view the online activities of the two students who had committed suicide after their killing rampage.

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"We have a long standing policy of cooperation with law enforcement," he quoted AOL spokesman Rich D'Amato as saying.

"Communications such as e-mail are disclosed only in criminal investigations and with a warrant... In response to orders in civil cases, AOL may give out information allowing someone's real name to be matched to a screen name."

Woodward used the example of Raytheon Inc., who had obtained subpoenas to identify 21 of its employees, who had reportedly been spreading corporate secrets and complaining in an anonymous online chat room.

The company then dropped the lawsuit claiming it had gone to court only to learn the identities of the chatters. "Four employees quit; others entered corporate 'counseling.'"

In May Cameron Crouch of IDG reported that a lawsuit had been filed by chat room participant Aquacool _2000 against Yahoo for disclosing personal information to a third party his then employer Answer Think. Yahoo identified his real name in response to a subpoena from AnswerThink. But Yahoo didn't tell him about the subpoena, and AnswerThink, a Web consulting firm fired him.

David Sobel, Electronic Privacy Information Center general counsel was reported as saying. The law requires that Yahoo release information when subpoenaed. "But they can notify the user so he can question the legitimacy of the subpoena," he said.

'The Yahoo suit also raises a question of the legitimacy of the increasing number of "cybersmear" cases, suits that companies file over negative comments in a chat room. "The number of these lawsuits is exploding," Sobel says. They're easy suits to pursue, but it's unclear how legitimate they are, he adds."

Crouch further reported that in April, Yahoo amended the policy, promising to notify the individual first. America Online was also criticized for privacy violations when it gave the U.S. Navy the identity of a gay chat room participant.

Chat rooms aren't only monitored by outsiders but by those companies who host the chats. Anick Jesdanun of the Associated Press wrote in August that America Online and other Internet sites removed anti-Semitic postings made after Al Gore announced Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut as his running mate.

Jesdanun reported that AOL, had recorded 28,000 postings on Lieberman, and had deleted an unspecified number for violating its policies against hate speech. CNN had also suspended about 10 users from its chat rooms. CNN apparently has software filters to automatically block profanity and hate words from chat rooms, and humans look for messages that slip through.

It was further reported that "Moderators at MSNBC and ABCNEWS sites were warned beforehand about the potential for slurs and other forms of hate speech. Some postings at ABC were removed. Some hate speech appeared on Yahoo! discussion groups, although the service refused to comment on specifics."

Authorities are also using the chat room to trace pedophiles and other sex predators. Jonathan Dube reported in March that Patrick Naughton, who had been a key member of the team that created Sun Microsystems' Java computer programming language, pleaded guilty to crossing state lines to have sex with a minor he had met in a chat room. The minor turned out to be an undercover law enforcement officer.

In a similar case Reuters reported in April that Cincinnati radio personality Jim Fox was apprehended when he drove 40 miles to Xenia, Ohio to have sex with a fictitious 14-year-old he met in a cyber chat room. In that case the girl turned out to be an undercover police detective.

In September May Wong of the Associated Press reported that business owners were finding the new Internet laws, which came into effect in April to protect children, expensive. She quoted Steven Bryan, CEO of, who said that the costs of complying with the 1998 Children's Online Privacy Protection Act were too high., planned to pull its e-mail and chat-room services Oct. 1. and try to make up for the predicted 20 percent loss in traffic with additional games.

Wong further reported "COPPA requires commercial Web sites to obtain 'verifiable parental consent' before any child under 13 participates in any interactive activity such as e-mails or chat rooms. It also requires parental consent before a site uses any personal information, such as a name or address, from children under 13. Consent can be verified, among other ways, through postal mail or a telephone call., which gets about 1,000 new members a day and has about 650,000 registered users, estimated that it costs the company $200,000 a year to comply with the law."

In March the Associated Press reported that the US government had arrested 15 people on criminal and civil fraud charges for using a "chat room" to share inside information on corporate mergers. Another four had also been charged.

The 19 were accused of making $8.4 million in illegal profits, about $100,000 of which allegedly was kicked back to John J. Freeman, a part-time word processing employee at two investment banks, Goldman Sachs & Co. and Credit Suisse First Boston, who had obtained the inside information in return for the money.

AP further reported that "Richard Walker, director of enforcement for the Securities and Exchange Commission, said the defendants were counting on the anonymity of the Internet to keep them safe. 'Two of them have never met face to face or even talked to one another on the phone,' added Walker."

But the FBI's Lou Schilerio, the assistant director in charge in New York City, argued the approach did little good. "These defendants thought using the Internet would provide them anonymity. It did not." FBI's Lou Schilerio, the assistant director in charge in New York City was quoted as saying.

"Added Walker: 'While the Internet is a powerful tool, with unprecedented potential for beneficial and illegal uses, it leaves an electronic trail that can help the government build a strong and compelling case.'"

In March, Marcy Gordon of the Associated Press reported that Federal securities regulators were stepping up their fight against the Internet by creating an automated surveillance system to search Websites, message boards and chat rooms.

Larry Ponemon, a partner in charge of privacy issues at Pricewater houseCoopers LLP, was quoted in the article as saying that the new technology "is equivalent to, in my opinion, wiretapping ... the equivalent of planting a bug,"

Gordon reported the "firm was among 107 companies invited by the SEC in January to bid to operate the automated surveillance system. It told the market watchdog agency it did not wish to participate because of privacy concerns and possible violations of the Constitution's protections against unreasonable search and seizure."

George Getz, a spokesman for the Libertarian Party was also quoted in the article. "This is government spying on the innocent, plain and simple... It's no different than the police tapping everyone's phones just because someone might have committed a crime."

Gordon further reported that in February "SEC asked Congress for $150 million for enforcement work and investor education for fiscal 2001. The agency's "Cyberforce," now some 240 strong, prowls the Internet looking for investment scams and other securities fraud."

Balancing the need to monitor illegal Internet activities with the issue of privacy, will continue to be a dilemma in the future and should be considered seriously by all.

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