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Lycos critical of MSN chat room closure

A Lycos executive says that chat is here to stay and greater investment could lead to a safer online environment.

Microsoft rival Lycos criticized the software giant's stance on chat rooms, saying that greater investment could lead to a safer online environment.

Alex Kovach, managing director of Lycos U.K., which runs a fully moderated chat room for around 100,000 users, said on Wednesday that chat is here to stay and it's not going to go away just because Microsoft has decided to shut down its chat services.

"By switching them off, Microsoft looks like it is taking the moral high ground, but in reality this is irresponsible," Kovach said. "Now it's more important that people provide responsible chat. Otherwise it will get driven underground, and the risks will increase." He said Lycos, part of Spanish Internet conglomerate Terra Lycos, employs around 100 chat moderators across the United Kingdom and uses a combination of human intervention and software to create "a safer environment".

Microsoft dismissed the concept of moderated chat rooms, saying they are not 100 percent effective. The company, which has 1 million regular users of its chat technology, said the reasons behind the closure of its services were not financial ones.

"Financial considerations did not come into place here," said Matt Whittingham, head of customer satisfaction at MSN. "We made a decision solely wishing to protect our customers from inappropriate communications."

Whittingham said that the real experts in guarding children are not MSN or America Online, but national organizations that were formed to protect children. "You cannot moderate all the chats--it is not practical," he said.

He also said that MSN had enough of "inappropriate communications" such as pornographic spam and advised its users to "go and use safe online communications like instant messenger, which is vastly more sophisticated and safer than chat services."

Kovach, however, believes that Microsoft could make the chat rooms safer by spending money: "It is expensive to provide moderated chat. Obviously, you need to provide people, but you also need quality software. It is expensive to do that," he said.

ZDNet UK's Munir Kotadia reported from London.