The teen creator of Chatroulette, a video chat site that recently has taken the Internet by storm, has implemented a new safety feature designed to shield youngsters from other users' inappropriate behaviors. But experts worry the precautions are not enough.
Chatroulette users can now click on a "Report inappropriate video" link to notify the site's creator, 17-year old Andrey Ternovskiy from Moscow, Russia, of objectionable content. An update posted on the site on Monday reads: "I have also been experimenting with new report system. CR should be clean from bad stuff now."
As its name implies, Chatroulette involves randomly pairing a user with another person online for a real time video and audio chat. As you can imagine, this exposes both parties to a mixed bag of experiences that can range from a group of college kids in Boston looking for a virtual party to lone men seeking a voyeuristic experience.
While the opportunity to converse with teens around the globe may be appealing, many parents and Internet safety experts are concerned about children seeing objectionable activities.
"I do not see that Chatroulette is doing what they need to do to protect the user," said Parry Aftab, an attorney specializing in Internet privacy and executive director of WiredSafety.org. "I recommend people stay away from the site."
A throwback to Internet's early days
In many ways, Chatroulette is reminiscent of the early days of the Internet, and that is part of its appeal, said Amanda Lenhart, director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project's research on teens, children and families.
Chatroulette gives users "the opportunity to meet new and fascinating people from all over the world and [to] learn about the ways in which they are similar or different from you," Lenhart told TechNewsDaily.
"Combine that with a prominent and easy to tap 'Next' button that lets you slide quickly out of undesirable conversations and it feels like safe – at least in the physical sense – fun."
Chatroulette can combine the thrill of a potential window on a forbidden world with little actual physical risk. Users may click "Next" at any time to exit the session and proceed to the next pairing. But even a glimpse may be overwhelming for some users.
There are "people displaying shock images of death or pornography, engaging in sex acts in front of the camera, among many other glimpses into things that parents and teens may wish they’d never viewed," Lenhart said. "But then again, that’s also part of the appeal – the thrill of a possible and quick – window on to the illicit, the sexual, the creepy and gross lives of anonymous strangers."
Chatroulette founder Ternovskiy, who lives with his parents in Moscow, Russia, acknowledged his site has been used in inappropriate ways. In an email to the New York Times, he wrote "Although some people are using the site in not very nice ways – I am really against it."
While Chatroulette's new feature for reporting inappropriate usage is good in theory, it is not clear what the process is for removing users who engage in objectionable activity, or what can be done to prevent them from returning.
Lenhart questions whether or not an automated solution is possible. "I'm not sure we have automated recognition software that’s good enough to recognize objectionable content being streamed live as it happens," she said.
Aaron Kenney is chief technology officer for InternetSafety.com, maker of SafeEyes, a leading Internet filter and parental control software program.
SafeEyes was selected by the Australian government as part of its nationwide Internet safety initiative, and is free to all Australian families.
Kenney said his company has received many phone calls from concerned parents about the new site. He said that automated software to identify inappropriate content in a streaming video is quite a ways off – even the capability to do that with static images is not reliable.
"I don't think we're there yet in technology, and so the only capability is it's allowed or it's not allowed in its entirety," Kenney said in a telephone interview.
SafeEyes has opted to ban Chatroulette for now. "Even the concept of being hooked up with a random person for a chat can be dangerous for a child, so we've categorized it as a blocked site," Kenney explained.
"In terms of getting something inappropriate, you can almost say the odds on Chatroulette are even worse than playing Russian Roulette."