As the Jerry Sandusky child-molestation trial dominates the news, teen-centric social-networking virtual world Habbo Hotel has shut down the ability for its 250 million users to communicate with one another as a recent news broadcast has it that a reporter posing as a child was left open for sexual invitations, according to Brand Republic.
Of course, that’s something the site — "the world's largest social game and online community for teenagers," which we described two years ago as a "parent-free zone for kids to hang out and goof off" — is surely looking to fix quickly since what’s the point of a social-networking site if you can’t communicate with other users?
Not helping Habbo is that the explosive report by the UK’s Channel 4 — which found sexually explicit chat rooms and users as young as nine, despite the site's rule that it's for teens — prompted British retailers Tesco, WH Smith and GAME to stop selling Habbo gift cards and European venture-capital firm Balderton Capital (Habbo's main investor) to yank its stake in Finnish parent company Sulake, according to CNET.
The fallout from the report promoted Sulake CEO Paul LaFontaine to go into damage control and order the site to be muted and all chat/conversations disabled while the site investigates. Currently, Habbo relies on a team of 225 human moderators to police and ban users breaching its terms of service — a virtually impossible task given its 10 million unique monthly users, leading to chat rooms filled with horny users such as this strip club found by Channel 4:
LaFontaine posted a series of message on the company’s blog that said that he was “incredibly concerned” about the report and that he understands the “critical importance of making sure teenagers and young people have a safe online experience” since he is a parent. He also has been responding on his Twitter account and Habbo's Facebook page. In previous posts he stated that "cybering" (the site's term for cybersex or sexy chat) is "not the Habbo way" and explained the site's policing philosophy.
LaFontaine also noted that even though he was disappointed with Balderton’s decision, he was more immediately concerned about getting the site back to a place that its users (who are "meant" to be 13 or older to register) could feel confident in. Yet judging by some of the comments on the Daily Mail's article, Habbo enables predators and inappropriate behavior in the first place by allowing users to create private chat rooms and dropping the language filters it once maintained:
• First of all they allow people to create rooms such as 'Dateing room' 'kissing booth' 'strip club' and also habbo make inappropriate furniture for example there is a pixel furniture called 'kissing booth' and you can put your habbo cartoon character in this kissing both with another habbo then the curtains automatically close and then it gives a shakeing/vibrating effect. Habbo is a good laugh if your over 16 but people under that age really shouldn't be allowed on these games also it is mostly the children in this game who send sexual messages. Habbo used to have an age limit you had to be atleast 14 years old to play but now it seems even 8 year olds can join and socialise with people twice their age. CHILDREN SHOULDN'T BE ON SOCIAL NETWORKS!!!
• Firstly I'd like to say, I have played Habbo Hotel since i was 11 years old, on and off. I am now 18. In all the time I have played, yes I have witnessed this sort of behaviour, but i have never been victim to it. Habbo Hotel gives players the options to 'mute' or 'report' players, so if a child felt uncomfortable they could do either of these things, or simply leave the room that they are in. That is up to them. Another thing I would like to point out is that, the majority of people engaging in this behaviour ARE CHILDREN. Its incredibly disturbing, but its clear in the way they speak and behave. As for the 'habbos dressed provocatively' or pretending to strip - they are also children, not paedophiles, children. The channel 4 report focussed on rooms entitled '18+' or 'sexy singles' which yes, are rife with sexual activity. But it is up to the children playing NOT to go to those rooms. There are thousands of rooms to just talk to friends, or play games - not all of them are for sex.
• I used to go on Habbo religiously when I was around 11-14. I never really noticed much of this taking place, so I was shocked when I signed in about a year ago (now 20) to find people talking sexually on the site. Habbo staff really need to become more strict. There isn't even a language barrier now.. back in the day anything construed as 'swearing' would show up as "bobba". That word still makes me laugh!
The Channel 4 report on Habbo also highlighted the need for brands with online communities to take responsibility for policing those networks, particularly if the intended users are kids and teens, as a British tech security firm, Crisp, noted in a press release:
Many other online games for kids have already realised the problems of relying solely on human moderators and have instead opted to employ intelligent technology that has proven to be 98.4% accurate in identifying online predators looking for victims, as well as harassment and spamming (Independent tests by Cambridge University). Only last month this new technology, known as Crisp 'Kids & Teens technology' saved the (London) Met police hundreds of man hours searching through chat logs to identify vulnerable targets. Going further than simple keyword filtering, the technology is able to analyse the behaviour of users. Crisp technology intelligently finds the chat that humans need to read and take action on, crucially saving huge amounts of time. Crisp clients already include: Sony, Ubisoft, Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network, LEGO, EA, Binweevils, Moshi Monsters.