Habbo Hotel children's site 'full of pornographic chat'
HABBO Hotel, an online game popular amongst teenagers, has been exposed as a forum ‘filled with pornographic chat’ by a TV investigation.
The virtual world, which has more than 250 million registered users aged between 13 and 18 years-old and attracts 10 million users a month, is meant to be fun game in which children create avatars and furnish their own digital hotel room.
However, as Channel 4 News producer Rachel Seifert found out during her two month-long stint using the site, posing as a 13-year old, instead, Habbo Hotel is playing regular host to highly sexual exchanges.
“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,” said Seifert.
"Within two minutes I was being asked individually 'do you have a webcam?', 'can we chat on (instant messenger service) 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."
Seifert played the game fifty times and on each occasion had similar experiences.
Children as young as eight are believed to be using the site, which last month, according to online audience measurement company, Quantcast, attracted 291,000 British teenage players.
John Carr, a child safety expert and consultant, also played the game with the Channel 4 News producer and within minutes, was send a friend request from an avatar called ‘DirtyBoii’ with the accompanying message: “Can I ask u what yr body's like".
Carr said of the experience: “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 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."
Since the details of Channel 4’s investigation have been released, a major European investor, Balderton, in Sulake, Habbo’s Finnish parent company has dumped its 13 per cent stake in the business
Paul La Fontaine, the chief executive of Sulake, said it is committed to ensuring that children are safe on the site, but admitted that the report was concerning.
“I was incredibly concerned to see this report and to hear about the findings of the Channel Four News investigation. As a parent, I understand the critical importance of making sure teenagers and young people have a safe online experience.
"I was sorry to hear of Balderton's decision to withdraw its involvement, but my priority right now is to address the issues raised by the investigation…I would like to reassure readers that we at Sulake remain fully committed to the Habbo community and to resolving the issues it currently faces.
"Habbo has a strong record in this area with industry commendations and deep experience actively preventing potentially damaging content. Since hearing about the report I have asked my team to tighten security across the site and to strengthen the user rules even further.
I want to take this opportunity to assure our site users that I will be working with my team globally to deliver improved safety levels across the community. Anyone who is concerned can contact me directly on Twitter @PaulLaFo."
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."
The Channel 4 News investigation also found that there have been two recent cases where paedophiles have been convicted for sexually abusing dozens of children who they befriended on Habbo Hotel.
One of cases, Matthew Leonard, was recently jailed for seven years - one of the longest prison sentences of this kind due to the nature of the case.
Leonard used Habbo Hotel to befriend youngsters who he then persuaded to go off the site, in return for free "furniture" for their room, which would normally cost users money.
From there, the girls were persuaded to strip and show themselves on webcams. This was then used to blackmail the girls to commit further sexual acts for him via webcam.
Channel 4 News will broadcast the findings of its investigation this evening and has passed all of the relevant information to the Government.