Happenings at Habbo


The BBC has published a blog by me on the Habbo story. Among other things, in it I discuss how Habbo presents a serious challenge to self-regulation, or at any rate to the way we have been doing it so far.

As I am currently at a conference in Stockholm I wrote the piece before I saw Neelie Kroes on catch up TV last night. I was reminded that, about two years ago, Habbo was more or less given a clean bill of health by the EU. This was following one of the periodic reviews of the operation of the EU’s social networking principles policy. Oh dear.

Incidentally at the conference I met a lawyer from Germany who said Habbo works in exactly the same way in his country as it appears to do in the UK, and posed the same worries for children. It is clear we are not talking about an issue which is limited to the Anglo-Saxons.

I am pretty sure the EU review was accurate at the time it was carried out. But having just re-read it, while I think it would be going too far to say that the EU had positively endorsed Habbo Hotel, it is true that, in the main, the comments made about Habbo were positive. Certainly I could not find any expressions of doubt or reservation about Habbo. Obviously, things have changed since. And in a big way, not a small way. If any parents read the EU’s review, and relied on it when deciding whether or not to allow their children to go on Habbo, it’s going to be red faces all round. Or worse.

But the key point is obvious and Kroes made it: not only must the EU’s review processes be able to check out what is going on with a web site now, somehow we have to find a way to keep the findings fresh and up to date. No small task. One has to wonder whether or not the Commission is properly resourced to do it.

Should companies be required or merely expected to notify the Commission if, following a review, they change their policies or practice in any significant way? This would help ensure that whatever is on the public record is up to date.

Do we need to start to talking about a new body that has an exclusive focus on this area of policy, or perhaps a new division of an existing organization? I think perhaps we do.

It will be vital that such a body is visibly independent of any political involvement, and that its membership reflects the full range of stakeholders. It has to be trusted and be equipped to deal with complex issues, with a capacity to weigh competing claims in the balance and reach a measured view.

One thing is for sure. We cannot carry on like this.

By a strange coincidence, Kroes is at this event in Sweden and she has just finished speaking. The question of Habbo featured strongly in her remarks. Kroes made it very clear that she is angry about what happened and the way the EU’s self-regulatory processes appear to have failed. Kroes has a determined glint in her eye.