Several press outlets have been giving ample coverage to ChatRoulette, an online video chat service that connects two random people. What seemed to be a great idea, quickly turned into a service for online voyeurs, public self-gratification and much public outrage. It also prompted one of the funniest Daily Show clips in recent years. The service is the creation of Russian programmer Andrey Ternovskiy, who was bored with normal Skype chats, and established a site that would allow people to randomly connect and chat online.
If you are a bit squeamish, or like me do not think your ego could stand being nexted by 99.9% of people, this video by filmmaker Casey Neistat offers you a nice introduction to the phenomenon, where he finds that the service consists of 71% men, 15% women, and 14% perverts. As Zoe Williams says, ChatRoulette is a game of trying to find out the odds of onanism online.
What does the law have to say about this? There could be room for some public indecency violations, and even some obscenity laws could have been broken. What I am now interested in is that some online vigilantes have decided to out people who use the service, and have created Chatroulettemap.com, a website that takes screenshots of the people in ChatRoulette, notes their IP address, and then geo-locates them using Google Maps. (Update: I’ve just spent some time looking at Chatroulettmap site. DO NOT visit if you do not want to be presented with a wide variety of male dangly bits, I feel like I need a shower now).
This brings me to the question I ask in the title. Should everyone who is using ChatRoulette be assumed to be a pervert? It is hard to say, but it seems like the tool itself is not inherently obscene, it is simply a chat randomiser. However, the implication behind the ChatRoulettemap site is that identifying and geo-locating ChatRoulette users is a legitimate endeavour. You have been outed as a ChatRoulette user, there must be something wrong with you. So, do people who expose themselves online have privacy rights? Should online voyeurs have an expectation to keep their identity secret? Do online onanists have human rights?
My guess is that Chatroulettemap.com will not survive long, the weight of legal liability might bring it down soon. But I think both ChatRoulette and Chatroulettemap ask some serious questions about current privacy regulatory approaches, but most importantly, they ask questions about the wired world that we have to start thinking about.