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Chatroulette Is 'Predator's Paradise,' Experts Say

Chatroulette Is Nasty

This Chatroulette.com user told FoxNews.com he was a member of the U.S. Army.

One minute you're chatting via webcam with a mom of two from Montauk, N.Y. -- and the next you're staring at a stark-naked man in Bangkok. Such is virtual life on Chatroulette, an "extreme social networking" Web site that connects users with a limitless number of "random strangers" from around the globe. 

The site, which debuted late last year, is an Internet sensation, attracting tens of thousands of videochatters at a time. But a large number of them seem determined to expose themselves, or to entice others to do so -- and that is causing alarm among authorities and child protection advocates.

Chatroulette, they say, is a "predator's paradise." 

Though users of the site must confirm that they are at least 16 years old and that they agree not to broadcast obscene, offending or pornographic material, some legal experts -- including one who saw the dangers firsthand -- say those barriers can be easily bypassed and can connect children with sexual predators and child molesters.

"Parents should keep all children off the site because it's much too dangerous for children," Dr. Keith Ablow, a psychiatrist and Fox News contributor, said. 

"It's a predator's paradise. This is one of the worst faces of the Internet that I've seen. It's disconnecting human relationships rather than connecting them."

Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, told CBS' The Early Show that the site is the "last place parents want their kids to be."

"This is a huge red flag; this is extreme social networking," Allen said. "This is a place kids are going to gravitate to."

But the authorities find themselves wearing a big set of handcuffs when dealing with the site's inherent dangers.

Anupam Chander, a law professor at the University of California-Davis, said he saw "clear indecency" within 10 minutes of going on Chatroulette. "It would be very easy for authorities that wanted to suggest that the site was contributing to public indecency to do that," he told FoxNews.com. 

But, he continued, the Communications Decency Act of 1996 may exempt civil liability for Chatroulette itself, because the law has been interpreted to imply that operators of Internet services are not publishers, and therefore not legally liable for the content of third-party users.

Authorities would be more likely to go after individuals who expose themselves while using the site, he said. But that's much easier said than done.

"Are any local police in Kentucky or Boston going to have the resources to chase after someone in Albania?" he asked. "What this will inevitably involve is the federal authorities, because it is transmission of indecent material across state lines."

If a crime did occur on the site -- say, someone exposing himself to a minor -- the victim would be unlikely to bring the matter to authorities, Chander said. So a successful prosecution would likely start with an investigator posing as an minor.

"This is not easy, but I think it will require the federal authorities to apply their best talents and their best efforts," he said. "If [a flasher] thinks no one can get to him, then he's going to do this again and again and again. It's important for him to feel the threat of prosecution."

Jim Walden, a former federal prosecutor and co-chairman of the white-collar defense and investigations group at Dunn & Crutcher LLP in New York, said a prosecutor would theoretically have sufficient basis to start an investigation based solely on an offending broadcast shown in his or her jurisdiction.

"So if there is a child predator using this site in order to lure children, or if someone uses this site to further some sort of intellectual property crime, a prosecutor in the jurisdiction where this is broadcast has sufficient basis to start an investigation," he said. "And the broadcast itself could be enough."

But getting a copy of that broadcast would be "practically impossible," Walden said, unless the images and messages are being archived by the site's providers.

"I find it hard to believe that these images aren't retained for some period of time," he said. "Let's be realistic. This is the Internet -- someone, somewhere is keeping a copy of this content."

But Doug Isenberg, an Internet law attorney based in Atlanta, said he found it "difficult if not impossible" to track any user of the site, since it does not require registration.

"What can you do about it? The answer right now seems to be not very much," Isenberg said. "I'm sure there will be those who want to shut the site down in its entirety because it's being used for some illegal activity. But that may be an extreme response, just like shutting down YouTube because there are videos on there that infringe copyrights."

The site's creator is understood to be Andrey Ternovskiy, a 17-year-old high school student in Moscow. He told the New York Times he initially created the site for "fun" and to connect randomly with global users. He said its seven servers are located in Frankfurt, Germany.

"Everyone finds his own way of using the site," Ternovskiy wrote in an e-mail to the paper. "Some think it is a game, others think it is a whole unknown world, others think it is a dating service. I think it's cool that such a concept can be useful for so many people. Although some people are using the site in not very nice ways -- I am really against it."

Ryan Calo, a resident fellow at the Stanford Center for Internet and Policy, said the issues of jurisdiction, intent and liability surrounding the site would make perfect law school testing material.

"It would make for a great cyberlaw exam," Calo said. "Students would have to identify all those issues."

Despite the legal ambiguities surrounding the site, Chris Reed, professor of electronic commerce law at the Queen Mary University of London School of Law, told FoxNews.com that an individual could be extradited to a foreign country for transmitting obscene or indecent images if the conduct is obscene in both countries -- that of the sender and receiver. But that's not likely to happen, he said.

"In practice, no country has sufficient law enforcement resources to take action in other than symbolic cases," Reed wrote FoxNews.com in an e-mail. "There just aren't enough courts, police officers, etc., to chase after online activities which cause little harm in the receiving country. 

"I guess the question is how best to use the country's tax dollars -- do you chase crack dealers? Or go after foreigners who masturbate in front of webcams? I doubt any country can afford to do both."