Habbo Hotel web game slammed in Channel 4 News report
Published Jun 12 2012, 16:13 BST | By Andrew Laughlin
Channel 4 News has uncovered "shocking lapses in moderation" at an online game popular with young teenagers, leaving them potentially vulnerable to sexual predators and paedophiles.
The broadcaster investigated Habbo Hotel, a Finnish website that is claimed to be "the world's largest social game and online community for teenagers", with a reported 10m unique visitors a month.
Players create avatars and enter the brightly coloured virtual hotel, where they can move around, chat to others in public or private, and buy goods to furnish their own room.
But after Channel 4 News producer Rachel Seifert spent two months playing, under the guise of an 11-year-old girl, she frequently experienced encounters of a sexual nature.
"The chat was very sexual, perverse, violent, pornographic, overtly sexual acts, people saying they were going to do things to others, and it was very graphic," she is quoted as saying in a report on the Channel 4 News website
"Within two minutes I was being asked individually 'Do you have a webcam?' 'can we chat on MSN, on Skype?' I was also within a couple of minutes asked to strip, fully naked, and asked what would I do on a webcam."
Channel 4 also found the site to be littered with pornographic sex chat, despite it being aimed at young teenagers.
Reporters for the broadcaster were contacted at one point by an avatar called 'DirtyBoii', who asked: "Can I ask u what yr body's like."
John Carr, a child safety expert who played the game with the Channel 4 News team, told the programme: "A moderator should be jumping in right now as it's not hard to see where this is going before it gets a lot worse. This is very worrying and going in a very bad direction.
"Here's someone aged 11 being asked to leave the site. There should be the equivalent of the virtual fire-brigade jumping in on this, but it's not happening.
"If I was a parent of an 11-year old girl on this site, I would want there to be a moral panic. This should not be happening. What I've just seen makes me think this is a dangerous place for youngsters to be.
"Businesses shouldn't put children at risk. If they are in this business, they have to be in it in the right way - the right moderators, the right software, to stop this happening."
Further inquiries into Habbo Hotel found two recent cases of peadophiles using the site to befriend children who they went on to abuse.
This includes Matthew Leonard, who was sent to jail for seven years after being found to have offered free "furniture" for Habbo Hotel rooms to persuade children to strip off in front of web cams.
After Channel 4 alerted Habbo Hotel maker Sulake about the issues, the site has posted the following warning: "We do not promote or allow explicitly sexual content. Cybering (talk simulating sex) and cam requests are strictly forbidden in Habbo. Any room that is set up to clearly signal cybering activities will immediately be shut down."
Paul LaFontaine, the chief executive of Sulake, told Channel 4 News that the company is committed to ensuring children's safety online.
"Any online community that allows users to assume virtual identities may be open to abuses, which is why we work hard to keep users safe, filtering content and blocking inappropriate users," he said.
"We also provide education and rapid-response support to users who experience uncomfortable conversations."
He added: "Habbo's moderation and safeguarding procedures includes employing more than 225 moderators, tracking some 70m lines of conversation globally every day on a 24/7 basis. These moderators cover all time-zones and the multiple languages in which Habbo users converse."
But Channel 4 News is concerned that games targeted at children and young people remain largely self-regulated, and so it has passed its findings to the government. > Internet trolls targeted in defamation law shakeup