The popular but controversial video chat service Omegle is closing down after fourteen years. According to the founder, the site was ‘no longer financially and psychologically viable.’
In 2009, the video chat service Omegle was launched as a competitor to Chatroulette. On both sites, users could be linked to any other user. The difference with classic chat rooms was that both users had to turn on their webcam for the match. That could lead to unexpected encounters. Some users met a soulmate on the other side of the world. Others came across someone who improvised songs or made drawings. But in many cases, users ended up with a webcam focused on an exposed penis.
When BBC journalists spent two hours on Omegle in 2021, the algorithm matched them to no fewer than twelve masturbating men, eight naked men and seven advertisements for porn sites. If founder Leif Brooks (32) saw Omegle as a ‘virtual village’ where you could chat with strangers on the street, it was one where the residents had little clothes to wear.
That led to criticism and questions for supervision, but Omegle kept going. The lockdowns of the corona crisis even caused a surge: in January 2021, the site attracted twice as many visitors as a year earlier. Even now, the site is said to have had more than 70 million visitors per month, according to the BBC. Yet the site is now throwing in the towel. Omegle has been cited as a problematic factor in dozens of pedophilia cases in recent years. Brooks is tired of these legal battles. “The site is no longer financially and psychologically viable,” a farewell message said.
With Omegle, a piece of internet history disappears – competitor Chatroulette will continue to exist. In the farewell message, Brooks describes how he started the site with a noble goal, but how that turned out wrong. Being a victim of abuse himself as a child was part of the reason he founded Omegle. ‘I saw the copper wires and fiber optic cables of the Internet as a shield. I knew that if I said “no” online, they couldn’t physically touch me. That allowed me to step out of my isolation. But we can’t honestly talk about Omegle without acknowledging that some people took advantage of it for terrible acts.”
In theory, the website had an age limit of fourteen years and Omegle monitored the conversations, but these restrictions could be circumvented. Pedophiles and abusers found a hunting ground there to gain the trust of children and exploit them sexually. In the US, a prominent lawsuit is still ongoing surrounding an American girl who was linked via the site to a Canadian pedophile who kept her under his control for three years. Omegle is also being sued in that case.
Anyone who wants to talk about violence, abuse or child abuse can call the free helpline 1712 of the Flemish government. https://www.1712.be/nl