Tuesday 12 June 2012

Outrageous morals

So. Habbo Hotel. Bit of a screw up there somewhere, isn't there. As Channel 4 exclusively revealed today, there's trouble at mill, trouble of the nastiness kind.

Isn't there?

Firstly, I want to take issue with something that I know right now. Channel 4 telling me that chances are my child is one of the 250 million global users of Habbo Hotel is a very different statement when the fact that only 300,000 of those are UK based accounts, a fact I made a point of checking with Jon Snow on Twitter. Yeah, he replies, I'm as shocked as you are (it's probably a researcher).

So really, it's highly unlikely your child is using Habbo Hotel. It's far more likely that they're using Facebook as these recent figures from Social Media Today show which state 20.6% of its entire user base is 13-17 years old (2011). I have of course date stamped that figure because as we all suspect, that figure is probably dropping, at least in the UK. They're all going somewhere else and I somehow doubt it's Habbo Hotel.

But that's not stopped Channel 4 from dragging an Internet Safety Adviser, John Carr to be horrified on camera and to state that if he were the parent of an 11 year old girl using Habbo Hotel, he'd want there to be a moral outrage.

And somewhat unpredictably, I'm going to say that I think there should be a moral outrage as well. But for very different reasons.

Why are parents not warning their children of the dangers of online chat rooms?
Because the ones who are tech savvy do and the ones who are not tech savvy can't warn about something they have no knowledge or experience of.

Why aren't teachers warning children about the dangers of online chat rooms?
Perhaps they are. Perhaps they are not. I suspect, as is the case with most strands of ICT education (and yes its a broad church that ICT badge and I've discussed that to death elsewhere) it is an inconsistent and hit and miss delivery which again depends on the tech awareness of the teacher doing the delivering.

If education and empowering is happening to a satisfactory level there remains one glaring question in all of this and it does not place blame with Habbo Hotel although the sheer lack of moderation (and outsourcing it is not an excuse I am prepared to accept from anyone encouraging young people to meet digitally) deserves them a damn good kicking which one of their investors is already in the process of delivering to them.

Anyway, the glaring question.

If as an 11 year old girl you are logging into Habbo Hotel and as the Production Manager of the Channel 4 News found when she pretended to be just that, the first thing you are greeted with is 'I'm groping your breasts now' why the hell are you not hitting the x in the corner of the window?

Answer the question of why young women very obviously are not, as the arrests and convictions of at least two pedophiles who used Habbo Hotel demonstrate, and you've cracked it and will hold the key to preventing any of this reoccurring again and again and again across yet another social network.

As a final thought - people seem remarkably comfortable none of this is happening on Facebook. The problem of course is that it's not all completely in the open like Habbo Hotel and you don't need to be a part of the network in order to gain access to those conversations because guess what? All the internet security advice which did get passed on - which in some areas was reduced to 'lock your Facebook account down' - has been listened to. And as a result we now have no idea what is happening behind those privacy locked down profiles. So maybe yes, only 300,000 UK users are using Habbo. But are we absolutely sure that the problem stops there? And if we're not, what exactly are we going to do to improve education for young people when it comes to their own internet safety?


  1. In 2008, the Byron Report on internet safety for children (also including games) was published. As part of the UK games industry, the company I work for contributed to it as did many other games developers and internet entertainment providers. It was a really good, intelligent report which more or less sank without trace :( Tonight I couldn't even find a copy online. Shame.

  2. The Google Fu is strong in this one - the 2008 Byron Review, Safer children in a digital world along with a 2010 update on progress.

    I've heard Professor Byron speak, I think at the 2010 Digital Inclusion conference and she said we should stop worrying about inclusion cos the next generation will just sort it all out as they're so digital it's part of breathing, essentially. The whole Habbo thing seems to me to be symptomatic of a red flag needing waving on at least part of that comment :/

  3. this issue will only be resolved when we start to really educate at all levels, parents, children and young people, teeachers and legislators. We need to equip people with the knowledge to enjoy, experieince and explore the digital world fully aware of the dangers and how to respond and avoid. A bit like riding a bike....

  4. :O) I agree 100%. Responsibility of provision cannot all sit in one place - there need to be multiple messages coming from all angles, from campaigns, from news, from the social network providers themselves, from young people through peer to peer education....

    Thank goodness studentroom doesn't have a chat facility...wait it doesn't does it?

  5. [Posting anon as I work for children's org in the internet safety field as part of my job]

    My intention in this comment is not to rubbish it but I just think you've got it the wrong way round in places.

    Firstly can I endorse the suggestion that what we need is good internet safety teaching in schools, by parents, etc.

    I also agree that really FB needs looking into, but it's not news any more - to get internet safety onto the TV you need a new news angle and I'm guessing Habbo was a new news angle that C4 could pick up. It's also pretty simple for viewers to understand - frankly I get confused about filtering based on age ranges/educational levels sometimes and it's my job.

    There is another point here, which is that the 'outrage' is that Habbo promotes itself as a safe place for young people with really efficient realtime filtering - and this is clearly not the case or was the case at some point BUT they've dropped it because it's too expensive.

    But, and to use the phrase you used on Twitter which prompted me to check out your blog, you've missed the point here. Frankly if a minimum of 82 children have had their lives effected forever by being exploited does it matter that the chances of somebody's children being a member of Habbo in the UK is small - those children were from the UK; they are part of that small number of UK users. Given that most parents don't know what their children are doing on line perhaps they should be checking/asking (1) are their children part of that 'small group' (2) Are their children keeping safe there or generally on the net (3) If not is because they don't know how to keep safe or don't care about being safe.

    If that C4 news piece prompts that and 'saves' children from exploitation then surely that's a good thing.

  6. It is a good thing. I dislike sensationalism, even the whiff of it. Have you seen the piece? If not, it's on 4OD, it would be really helpful to me if you could go and watch it - you might then understand why the blog is written in the sequence it is.

    My point, my main point is why some girls do not hit the x in the corner of their open window, no matter whether it is Habbo, Chat Roulette etc. Habbo is old news - it was big in 2007 but it's old hat. It's Second Life. It's past. But I still applaud Channel 4 for running the piece because someone needed to flag that this is an issue - the issue is not Habbo however, in the same way that BBM did not cause the riots - it's just a tool and tomorrow there will be another one.

    I want to question the underlying issue. But I wont avoid questioning whiffs of sensationalism if I come across them. It irritated me.

  7. Also, can you DM me on Twitter if you wont self ID on here? Cheers.

  8. It's the anon guy from above - I did watch the piece before I commented (I won't have commented before seeing it). I do actually understand what you are saying (and why you said it in the order you did). I didn't think the C4 piece was that well put together really and it's quite obvious (IMO) they were under some pressure from CEOP to put some bits of it in see my comment below about the difference between explicit comments and exploitation.

    I admit my comments about the 82 victims were strong - sorry - but if there's anything that riles me it's vulnerable children being abused or exploited. If there's any way we can education people to educate children to protect themselves - like say being sensationalist in news stories - then I don't have a problem with that.

    I guess I'm looking at this in the bigger picture of what children's orgs have been trying to do for ages - which is to 'force' providers to put in place safeguards ie the other side of the coin from internet safety education AS WELL AS get parents to realise that they need to make sure their children are educated. The issue here is that internet safety has almost become the same old same old and sensationalist stories are almost the only thing that will make people sit up and take notice. That's what campaigning is about. You also have to take this in the context of recent pushes to get mobile and broadband internet filtered at source and pushes to get people like FB to actually ID users before they register - there's an agenda here. I will say here that I'm not entirely happy with some of these aims - I see us travelling slowly but surely along the route of compulsory internet IDs, realtime monitoring of content as well as traffic and gov based censorship - we see bits of this all the time now like UKuncut FB pages being shut down under terrorism legislation.

    HHmmm, I agree Habbo is old hat, and I usually have to try not to giggle when I'm training staff and they go on about MySpace or Bebo for the same reasons. BUT Habbo have got lazy and that's the story. Although I think John Carr might well have driven the story quite hard - suggest looking at his blog http://johnc1912.wordpress.com/ - he has an agenda.

    My take on why they don't hit X - well children just love to take risks (how much education is there around drink, drugs etc but young people still do it). There's also the issue of the thrill of doing stuff adults have said have shouldn't do. The moment a child doesn't hit X there's a space for a predator to move in. They may also think 'well this place said it was safe so maybe it's somebody messing around' - again there's a gap.

    Without knowing all of the stories of all of the 82 victims - but I can take a fair swipe at guessing - I would say that what got them hooked in was somebody being friendly when they are 'vulnerable' (I mean this in a social care sort of way), that's normal for predators - on or off line; probably not the obvious approaches as described on the piece. IE the two things exploitation via Habbo and the stuff they showed around explicit comments are not really that connected. That was bad of them to make the connection.

    OK, I'm going to think about DMing you - I've gone way beyond what I'm really allowed to do in terms of comment and identifying myself as working for a children's org. Ie if I DM you then who I am is out of the bag to anyone with google. I can say I'm not senior at all and some of my opinions are not exactly corporate. But people have been sacked for less (yes really that is the case). My reason for engaging with you on this is that I'm genuinely interested in getting a feel for thoughts on internet safety issues outside of the sector which are badly in need of a dose of outside input.

  9. This is all really helpful. Thank you. I think you're right, there is a difference between comment and exploitation. I think....this has been going on for a long long long old time it's just never been the case that journos knew enough about the tech to find out - because historically, ICQ IM, etc etc, were niches, not mainstream. Now they're mainstream and of course that's a bigger pot to educate and take responsibility for.

    Personally, and this is a very personal opinion, I don't think any kind of pin protection system will work. Kids still watch 18 rated movies at 11, 12 years old, probably even younger these days. People get around stuff as soon as you make it obvious there's something worth getting around by investing tonnes of effort and money into putting it in place. See piracy for the demo.

    I just think there needs to be a more cohesive strategy than it feels there is currently. I may be wrong and have been quietly hoping for someone to come and prove me wrong but parents, peer 2 peer, youth workers, police, carers/fosterers....everyone has a part to play and in my very limited experience, in the places especially where child protection should be at the top of the list, internet safety is not thought of as even being on the radar (ex Council but not talking about ex Council here, they're getting their heads around it, slowly but surely).

    One of the things I'm most worried about where child protection is concerned is that if we tell our young people to lock their FB pages then tell social workers they cannot use FB in a professional capacity, we've potentially cut off a massive source of intelligence off from them. Is it more dangerous for them to be in the conversation or outside of it?

    P.s. don't say hi if you're not comfortable. Also, not ignoring the 82, just very focused on trying to do something to prevent another 82.

  10. Can I just say I read this and agree with most, if not all of it. I understand the need to promote safety online, but not the way it was done... let me explain.

    I am 19 years of age, A Habbo Player, and a 'listed' Fansite Owner of the game Habbo (see http://www.habbo.com/community/fansites), I have been playing Habbo since I was 13. I have noticed Habbo Moderation has relaxed a little since my first days in the hotel, however throughout my time in Habbo (from day one even till today) it has been drilled into me when playing the game to report inappropriate behaviour and users to the moderation team.

    Unlike the various Habbo who found the need to abuse those involved, I, admittedly, posted a few hate comments, but if a site you loved and cared about, and even spent around 40$AUD+ a month keeping a fansite open for this site, was unfairly reported on, wouldn't you kick up a stink.

    I sincerely hope our man PaulLaFo is able to bring justice to this article and provide great services once again. Habbo is a strong knit community... we are able to make friends easily on it because there are no looks to bring us down (only our characters looks). I however, feel that Habbo was porly represented. You heard stuff like "if parents saw this I doubt their children would be using Habbo any more" but we never heard what. Was it the use of the word tits etc?

    Interestingly, Habbo has a filter which can be turned on and off (even tho it is not publicized). The filter by default is turned off, and all swearing is filter out with stars i.e. ****. Clearly Channel4 turned the filter off (which a 13 or lower year old wouldn't have known how to do, due to lack of publicity over this) so they could see such comments... its an outrage.

    As such, all us Habbo's from around the world are protesting in-game and on Twitter. We want Channel4 to realise the shitstorm they have started. It was never a problem before, why is it a problem now?

    Yours sincerely,
    Anonymous Habbo

    P.S. I am willing to reveal my identity to you via twitter if you desperately want to know who I am.

    1. Sorry, by this article I was referring to the one by Channel 4.

    2. Hiya,
      Received and understood. It's complicated by the fact that I think Channel 4 might have had problems in finding a Habbo user to comment though I am assuming they did try. I think outsourced moderation may perhaps be the issue here in that it adds a level of disconnection between the content and the provider of the platform that the content is happening across.

      I remember an incident a while ago where a facebook page for a Waitrose branch absolutely exploded on a Sunday and in my stream was one of the PR bods who were looking after this page but they couldn't say _anything_ at all as there was no one at Waitrose around on a Sunday to authorise or sign anything off.

      FWIW, historically I've trusted Channel 4 as a news source and I don't trust lightly when it comes to such things. Your comments on **** of obscenities does highlight something incredibly important however, which is that it turns the obscene comments into mere trolling, something certain un-moderated news sites cannot defend themselves against and so should understand the issues presented by Habbo.

      I do, however, also believe Habbo should be blocking those accounts which are trolling in that manner. I do think the level of moderation should be looked at, and judging by the horrified and genuine response from the CEO read out on Channel 4 news last night, it will be looked at and I suspect incredibly quickly. Lets face it, your investors start yoinking money and suddenly there is a massive motivation to sort it.

      Thank you for this comment. Very much.

    3. Also, while I've got you, can I ask something?

      The convictions of men who were found to have used Habbo Hotel to find their victim, how does the community itself protect against such things? I mean... I'm getting a fierce sense of community from you so I'm wondering if you have your own ways of making sure people are warned/looked after/protected since the moderation levels have backed off?

      I ask cos there's a lot of discussion around online communities in my web space at the moment and I'm interested a lot in whether protection inside and the outside community is something offered/encouraged etc.

    4. Some truthful and good comments there :)

      The way the community protects themselves is simple... we report negative behaviour to the moderators for intervention or we ignore the stupidnesss of "GIRLS WITH MSN ADD ME ON BLABLABLA@BLA.COM". Yes, It is not ideal, but it was the easiest option.

      However, moderation hasn't been at it's best since the layoffs. As a listed Fansite you would think our site could be mentioned in the hotel correct? Wrong. Moderators were ban happy and banning myself (owner of the site) and my volunteer staff of the fansite (news reporters, events hosts etc) for advertising "a scam site" even tho the link was to my listed fansite.

      Yes, moderation needs improving.
      No, Channel 4's article is not 'new news'.

      I however think Channel 4 is extremely biased in the way they dealt with it. I mean labelling it a children's brothel etc.. WTH? They have only just seen the beginning of the reaction of us Habbos, that's only the start.