The recent proposal outlined by The U.K.'s National Crime Squad (NCS) to monitor Internet chat rooms is not a workable solution, according to Internet chat network owners and administrators. In their statement of 9 June, 2004 the NCS stated that "Uniformed Officers" will enter certain chat rooms, primarily those chat rooms frequented by adults seeking underage children, and have an icon attached to their nickname to identify themselves as law enforcement officers. The F.B.I. is also named as one of the agencies participating in this proposal.
No details are available as to which chat networks are slated for the police presence, and requests for information from the NCS have gone unanswered. It is not known whether they are referring to IRC chat networks, or web based chat areas, such as Yahoo! Chat or AOL chat rooms.
Chatmag News requested feedback on this issue from IRC Operators, IRC network administrators, and Yahoo! Chat users, with over one hundred replies recieved. Virtually all of the responses raised questions as to how the Officers will identify themselves; what assurances chat users will be given that the Officer is authentic; which chat channels or rooms will they occupy and will they monitor private chat conversations.
One IRCop was straightforward in his response, that he "will kill (disconnect) any "Uni" " found on his network. Others espressed cautious optimism that such a proposal may be workable, but would need more information before committing to a uniformed police presence on their networks. Several network operators would welcome a police presence, one operator saying " I would openly invite police officers to our network and be thankful there's someone around with some authority to do something about pedophiles and other internet criminals! I'm definitely for it and I would be a proud advocator!"
Another IRC Operator brought up the issue of censorship and the sheer volume of chat channels available.
"It sounds like a good idea. However, it could be a first step towards censoring chatrooms. There are many networks (EFnet, for example) that pride themselves on absolute freedom for users to do what they want to. With the exception of damaging the network, of course.
That aside, I don't see how it could be feasible to police chatrooms. According to SearchIRC.com, there are nearly 600,000 chatrooms on public IRC networks alone. It would take a lot of "beat cops" to police it." (Ed. Note. Operator is not affiliated with EFnet)
A common concern among network operators, will the uniformed officers confine themselves to a particular chat channel, or is this the camels nose under the tent, in which the network users will see a Police Officer in any of the thousands of unrelated chat channels?
IRC network operators are particularly concerned that the NCS made this proposal without the input of those that are familiar with the operation of chat networks and the NCS unilaterally deciding that Uniformed Officers will be entering chat networks without prior consent of the network owners.
While all respondents agree that online predators are an issue that must be addressed, many stress that care should be taken to preserve the rights of the individual chat networks to set their own standards within the boundaries of applicable laws, and the rights of chatters to express themselves in either an open forum or in private messages.
Without the cooperation of chat networks and policies that guard the rights of chat networks and individuals, the proposal by the NCS is a potentially good idea that may never get off the ground.