13 Jun 2012

EU: Improve moderation or we could shut you down

Following a Channel 4 News report into online game Habbo, the EU warns companies to tighten up moderation or face being shut down. But why does moderation fail?

When a Channel 4 News researcher played the popular online game Habbo, she was subjected to pornographic chat and inapproapriate approaches. The game’s parent company, Sulake, maintains it works hard to keep users safe by filtering content and blocking users.

Nonetheless, some of that content clearly bypassed the site’s filters and 225 moderators when she was online. But Habbo is a vibrant community accessed by millions of users, many of whom say they use it without encountering any problems. Is there a way to ensure the safety and enjoyment of vulnerable ‘Habbos’ without compromising that of the many others who use it without incident?

If you create a site where everyone can be anyone, people will do what they like, there’s no deterrent. Dr Elena Martellozzo

Dr Elena Martellozzo from Middlesex University has worked with the Metropolitan Police on issues of online child sexual abuse and ‘grooming’.

She told Channel 4 News that self-regulation of sites such as Habbo is clearly not working: “I don’t believe in self-regulation but it’s almost impossible to moderate. Ideally, there should be a form of moderation but there also needs to be education of people who use the sites and it needs to go on continually because cyber space changes so quickly.”

Read our Q & A with child safety expert John Carr on how to protect your child online

Dr Martellozzo admits that ultimately the internet cannot and should not be subject to heavy moderation, “cyber space cannot be fully policed, you could put thousands of undercover police online and you wouldn’t catch all wrongdoing”, but that “more money has to be put into education”.

“Actions we should never, ever tolerate”

Vice President of the EU Commission Neelie Kroes agrees that the safety of youngsters online is the responsibility of the wider community.

She told Channel 4 News: “All of the technology companies should feel the heat. But that is only part of the story. It is the technology companies, the parents, the teachers, it is also the government. It is up to all of us to address the issues. I can’t imagine one person on the earth who would say ‘it doesn’t matter’.

“These are actions that we should never, ever tolerate.”

There are government-backed moderation guidelines for websites which set out examples of best practise for website operators. These include the pros and cons of using computer software, or volunteer as opposed to paid moderating staff.


But in reality can even this fully prevent abuses taking place? The guidelines state: “moderation on its own is not a panacea, but can play an important part in keeping children safer online, alongside a range of other tools including privacy tools/settings, filters and parental controls as well as education on safety and responsible use.”

Elena Martellozzo agrees but, unlike the EU Commission, does not think that closing down a website is the answer. She told us: “We need to get people to behave ethically online. If you create a site where everyone can be anyone, people will do what they like, there’s no deterrent.

“Demonstrating that there are moderators and house rules make it easier for people to abide by behaviour codes.”

On Facebook, Habbo users have been responding to our report on Habbo:

Ellie Houlden
: I am a habbo hotel user, I’ve been on this game for 4 years, Habbo never used to be like this. It used to be all fun, making game rooms and meeting new friends…

Emma Stacey Shipley: I have two teenage girls who are both members of Habbo. I think online communities are a good thing. I agree sometimes things happen that shouldn’t, but that is the case with all communites, online and in real life.

Nilany Vasantharasan: Its shocking to see what children go through in this day and age. Its a shame children these days don’t experience true childhood.

David McGrath: A shocking report. The mediation of content is not difficult.