Is Chatroulette.com playing Russian with the censors?
Unpredictable, addictive and unrestricted. Chatroulette has sparked a cult following, countless YouTube clips, a new genre of shocked screen-grabs, and at last, mainstream coverage.
It could now draw the attention of would-be censors.
John Herrman, from Gizmodo.com calls Chatroulette, “speed-dating the entire Internet”. In an instant, you’re connected bedroom-to-bedroom with one of 20 thousand online strangers, anywhere in the world, be it dorm, cafe or basement lair.
The result is a hybrid of Skype and Peep-Show. If your chat partner is bored, they flick you to another round of spin of the bottle. It’s a return to the Internet’s Wild Wild West, argues NY Magazine - a lawless place for thrill-seekers, voyeurs, artists and freaks.
The question on every one’s lips is: how long can it last? Panic is already spreading: “It’s Like Inviting Pedophiles Into Your Home” claims Sheila Lirio Marcelo in The Huffington Post. A US independent schools listserv is promoting blocking the site in schools: “There is a website called chatroulette that kids are going on to engage in very inappropriate activities. It requires no log in. We have banned it at Hotchkiss and wanted to pass along the warning to other schools”.
If you’re in the business of complaining, Chatroulette will keep you busy. There’s no sign-in, no age verification. Alongside regular net nasties are apparent suicide attempts, oh-so-real sex and people dressed up as toys. The Washington Post writes: “Chatroulette is one of those online arenas where not being a white male looking to get off puts you in a definite minority”. Watch this space. Scare stories and child protection watch dogs are just around the corner.
As I cycled stranger to stranger yesterday, I asked one question: “What’s the craziest thing you’ve seen?”
A Brisbane girl, 22, saw “like 10 dicks in the first minutes”. An 18-year-old girl in Florida sees a lot of nudity, but likes it: “There’s hot guys to talk to, and they’re not weird if you get lucky”. She eventually told me that she “never let it get too weird, but this really hot guy was stripping for me”.
“I have seen a man with gun in is mouth”, a 26-year-old unemployed French guy called Colin told me. He saw it while skipping through strangers; it lasted 2 seconds. Colin was convinced it was fake. Two other 18-year-old French students outside Paris told me they saw a guy hanging from the ceiling, though they couldn’t verify whether it was real or not. (Other similar web shots have been posted on forums, and are widely regarded as fake). They also saw a guy having sex with what looked like a real raccoon.
“So sexy”, they wrote.
Bestiality. Real sex. Self harm. All stuff that could reasonably trigger complaints. And people do complain. During 2008-09, ACMA received 3 complaints a day (that’s 1,182 complaints). Just over 1100 were investigated, and seven take down orders issued in Australia. Problem sites overseas were referred to filtering companies to offer consumers with up-to-date filters. Under the proposed mandatory regime, any complaint that finally receives a Refused Classification rating would be blocked at ISP level using a secret list.
On Chatroulette, I’ve seen a fair bit of what could be called RC. And loads of R. I’m not an easily offended adult, but I employ the ‘Next’ button frequently. But let’s say you’ve seen something nasty on Chatroulette and you are offended. Let’s say you take the necessary steps to complain about it to ACMA (I’d prefer you didn’t, but it’s up to you). How would Australian censors deal with your complaint?
With great difficulty.
Our classification system is a complicated mash of definitions, complaints processes and reviews. Some things simply elude traditional definitions, like Chatroulette. At first glance, Chatroulette seems exempt from Content Classification, because it’s basically private web chat.
All of you in long-distance relationships can breathe a sigh of relief. Currently, content regulation doesn’t cover “a service that enables end-users to communicate by means of video calls”. The Government doesn’t care if you shag on Skype. That makes sense.
But what about shagging on Chatroulette? Well, Chatroulette isn’t an “Adult Chat Service” (which attracts different regulations). You can tell an Adult Chat Service by:
NAME. No. Nothing about the name “Chatroulette” is too porny.
ADVERTISING: No. It’s not advertised anywhere as an Adult Chat Service. In fact, there are explicit anti-offense warnings on the site.
REPUTATION: What is Chatroulette’s reputation? It hasn’t been around that long.
The second problem for would-be censors is that Chatroulette is user-generated, live streaming content. It’s ephemeral, there one second, gone the next. Besides, current regulation only covers ‘Live Content’ when broadcasting on the web (think sports web cast, or Question Time). Privacy of web communications remains explicitly protected. Who’s to tell you what you can and can’t do once you’re in a private chat space with the guy in the hockey mask?
People may not complain about Chatroulette. And I’m hoping they don’t. But if they do, the Government is ill-equipped to respond. Chatroulette sits right in the middle of a big hole in the way the Government regulates the net. There’s no specific coverage of private streaming of this kind.
If it came to it, one of the Government’s only responses would be to block the URL (chatroulette.com). But it’s not the link, it’s the live streaming and what people use it for, that will draw complaints. Blocking a URL to stem unpredictable live content cannot be the sensible solution.
Chat Roulette is just one of a growing number of sites that show up the limitations of mandatory link-based filtering. And that’s a challenge to a Government wanting us to take its plan seriously.
Check it out while it lasts. chatroulette.com. Really not very work friendly.
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