Sun. Jul 21st, 2024

Omegle: Shut Down After 14 Years

The popular video chat site Omegle shut down in November 2023 after 14 years in operation. The site’s founder, Leif K-Brooks, cited growing legal and ethical concerns for minors’ safety as the reason for the closure. Omegle has been mentioned in more than 50 cases against child abusers, and in 2021 a woman sued the site for matching her with a sexual predator when she was 11 years old. K-Brooks also said that operating Omegle was no longer financially or psychologically sustainable, and that fighting to prevent its misuse was too much. 

Omegle, which debuted in 2009, allowed users to anonymously chat with strangers and share ideas. However, some say that the site’s design made it easy for users to switch between conversations, making it a desirable location for new users to hang out.

 

After 14 years operating under the motto “Talk to strangers!” the popular video chat site, Omegle, has officially shut down, according to its founder, Leif K-Brooks.

In a farewell letter addressed “Dear Strangers,” Brooks cites the innocent ideal of what Omegle stood for, but also notes that “there can be no honest accounting of Omegle without acknowledging that some people misused it, including to commit unspeakably heinous crimes.”

The most recent of a long series of legal discourse, a young woman sued the website in 2021, accusing it of matching her in a chat when she was 11 years old with a man who sexually exploited her.

According to NPR, “The young woman, identified only as A.M., sought $22 million in damages in her lawsuit. Omegle was shut down days after the two sides agreed to settle the lawsuit.”

Founded in 2009, Omegle has been around for the adolescent years of many Seattle University students, and Gen Z youth across the world.

Karim Jooma, a second-year law student, opened up about his experience using the platform.

“Omegle was a staple for meeting strangers on the internet,” Jooma said.

Typical to many others, Jooma used Omegle for fun, whether it be during sleepovers or whilst on FaceTime with friends, commenting on the range of people you could meet on the site.

“It was one of those things used by a lot of people, but hardly if ever for its intended purpose,” Jooma noted. “It went from kids like me to old guys sitting there naked.”

Many students and former users weren’t shocked to hear of the current legal debacle surrounding the platform. Given the nature of what took place on the site, for many people, the shutdown wasn’t surprising.

Joseph Garcia, a junior at Albuquerque Academy, weighed in on the controversy surrounding the platform.

“I wasn’t very surprised, it’s a crazy place,” Garcia said. “It felt like it was going to happen sooner or later.”

Similar to Jooma, Garcia would often visit the site late at night when hanging out with friends, noting the danger of using Omegle alone.

Nonetheless, Garcia did make sure to point out he is sad about Omegle being gone. Aside from being fun and exhilarating, never knowing who was going to pop up next, Omegle was a place where people from across the world were able to connect.

“I think it was a good way to communicate with people from other places,” Garcia said. “One time, when I was taking French in school, I typed French into the category search so I was able to connect with people who spoke French and practice with them there.”

Unfortunately, this positive experience was not respected enough by a large number of Omegle’s users, many of whom abused the site for its anonymity—exposing themselves on camera, or requesting sex acts from others.

“There was an excitement around the platform, because it was something you were obviously not supposed to be looking at. Parents were unaware, teachers were unaware, and even politicians, it seemed, were largely unaware,” Tyrah Majors said, an adjunct professor in communication and media at Seattle U and anchor and reporter for the weekday morning newscasts on KOMO News.

Growing up, Major’s middle school years came at a time when kids were frequenting the site. Omegle was launched before mainstream social media platforms like Instagram and Snapchat.

Popular almost instantly after launch, Omegle quickly reached millions of daily users, and remained in wide usage up until 2023 according to a recent New York Times article. Peaks came during the pandemic, when people sought relationships while in isolation.

Coupled with its scale, in the letter, Brooks notes that while the company had “implemented a number of improvements” to its services, including human and AI moderators, the standards that critics had set were “not humanly achievable.”

“I wish there were better restrictions back when I was a teen, and up to the day Omegle was shut down,” Majors commented. “There should be no spaces anywhere where such crimes are allowed to occur.”

The end of Omegle comes at a time when lawmakers and law enforcement agencies continue to examine the role of technology and social media in the lives of young people.

“I think that Omegle is an example that all eyes are on social media platforms and how they are affecting minors especially,” Majors said.

As Omegle shuts down, an opportunity to connect with strangers goes missing. Whether for better or for worse, this restriction is a clear sign more attention is being paid to the social media landscape all of us take for granted. source


Omegle, the anonymous video chat site, shuts down after 14 years

The website recently settled a lawsuit that alleged it connected a then-11-year-old girl with a sexual abuser.

Omegle, a website that connected strangers for video chats, has shut down after a lawsuit accused it of facilitating child abuse.

Founder Leif K-Brooks announced the closure Wednesday in a lengthy statement posted to the website that touched on what he saw as positives about the platform and the future of the internet. He wrote that Omegle had been used “to explore foreign cultures; to get advice about their lives from impartial third parties; and to help alleviate feelings of loneliness and isolation.”

But he also noted the platform’s struggles with child predators.

“There can be no honest accounting of Omegle without acknowledging that some people misused it, including to commit unspeakably heinous crimes,” K-Brooks wrote.

Launched in 2009, the website initially gained traction with teens but remained a relatively fringe video-chatting platform, though clips of funny or strange interactions and pairings sometimes spread across the internet. Its cultural resonance ebbed and flowed, with a new burst of popularity on TikTok and YouTube in 2020.

Not long after its launch, Omegle gained a reputation as a platform that struggled to stop child sexual abuse. Omegle has been named in numerous Department of Justice publications announcing the sentencing of people convicted of sex crimes.

The website was sued in 2021 for allegedly having a “defectively designed product” and enabling sex trafficking after the service matched a girl, then 11, with a man who later sexually abused her.

Carrie Goldberg, whose firm represents the girl, said Omegle’s shutdown was a result of mediation between the platform and her client.

K-Brooks wrote that Omegle had “state-of-the-art AI” and a team of moderators working behind-the-scenes to combat misuse of the platform. He also wrote that the site “worked with law enforcement agencies, and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, to help put evildoers in prison where they belong.”

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) collects reports of suspected child sexual abuse material from tech platforms.

Child sexual abuse and the online sharing of child sexual abuse material has become a sweeping issue that has affected nearly every social media platform. In 2022, Omegle filed over 608,000 reports to NCMEC, while Instagram submitted more than 5 million and Facebook submitted over 21 million.

In his statement, K-Brooks said that a war was being waged “against the Internet” under the banner of child safety.

“Virtually every online communication service has been subject to the same kinds of attack as Omegle; and while some of them are much larger companies with much greater resources, they all have their breaking point somewhere,” he wrote.

The website had declined in relevance amid the rise of other chat platforms like Discord but saw a surge of popularity in 2020, with many TikTok users posting videos of them using the platform. As of Thursday, videos with the Omegle hashtag have been viewed on TikTok 11.4 billion times. Some creators on TikTok and YouTube had specialized in Omegle “prank” content.

The closure announcement sparked some to recall fond memories of the platform. X users posted their favorite memes spawned from the chat site, including infamous burns and awkward moments.

Still, viral reactions to Omegle’s shutdown largely focused on the platform’s notoriety for connecting minors with adults. Matt Bernstein, a progressive politics influencer who has over 400,000 followers on X, posted: “rip omegle, thoughts and prayers to all the 35 year old men i talked to when i was 14.” source


Omegle shut down: Video chat website closed after abuse claims

Popular live video chat website Omegle is shutting down after 14 years following user claims of abuse.

The service, which randomly placed users in online chats with strangers, grew in popularity with children and young people during the Covid pandemic.

But the site has been mentioned in more than 50 cases against paedophiles in the last couple of years.

Founder Leif Brooks said that operating the website was “no longer sustainable, financially nor psychologically”.

“There can be no honest accounting of Omegle without acknowledging that some people misused it, including to commit unspeakably heinous crimes,” he said.

“As much as I wish circumstances were different, the stress and expense of this fight – coupled with the existing stress and expense of operating Omegle, and fighting its misuse – are simply too much.

“Frankly, I don’t want to have a heart attack in my 30s.”

Omegle’s closure announcement included an image of its logo on a gravestone.

What is Omegle?

Mr Brooks launched Omegle in 2009 at the age of 18. He described it as “the idea of ‘meeting new people’ distilled down to almost its platonic ideal”, and built on what he saw as “the intrinsic safety benefits of the internet, users were anonymous to each other by default”.

The website had around 73 million visitors a month, according to analysts at website watchers Semrush, mostly from India, the US, the UK, Mexico and Australia.

For some teenagers it was seen as a rite of passage to be matched with a stranger in a live video chat where anything could happen.

Indeed, as news of its closure spread, young people who have grown up with Omegle being a wild part of the internet have been sharing stories and memories of the site on social media.

However, Omegle has also been the subject of controversy, and many are also posting horrible stories of the sorts of sexual and predatory behaviour they experienced on the platform.

In a landmark case a young American is suing the website, accusing it of randomly pairing her with a paedophile.

The account user was a minor when the incident took place and the lawsuit against Omegle was filed 10 years later in November 2021.

Omegle’s legal team argued in court that the website was not to blame for what happened, and denied that it was a haven for predators.

The case is ongoing.

Omegle's creator Leif Brooks declines to talk to the BBC

Omegle’s creator Leif Brooks declines to talk to the BBC

Reclusive owner Mr Brooks and his fans argue that the shutdown of Omegle is a symptom of internet freedoms being taken away and the end of an era.

But in many ways Omegle was a strange relic of a former way the internet worked.

The site itself was glitchy and ugly, with an offensive joke about the Chinese president on its landing page.

Moderation was extremely light-touch at a time when politicians and society are asking for more from internet companies.

For instance, this week, in the UK Ofcom issued its first guidance for tech platforms to comply with the Online Safety Act and the communications regulator singled out online grooming.

Two people with knowledge of the inner workings of Omegle say that there wasn’t any human moderation despite Mr Brooks’ claims.

The entire company was seemingly run solely by him, with no other registered employees.

It was operated from his lakeside house in Florida and when he was asleep or offline, no complaints were acted upon.

Earlier this year, the BBC found that Omegle has been mentioned in dozens of cases against paedophiles in countries including the UK, US and Australia.

Video-sharing platform TikTok banned sharing links to Omegle, after a BBC investigation in 2021 found what appeared to be children exposing themselves to strangers on the website.

Mr Brooks never publicly answered his critics or posted to social media, despite the trend of tech bosses being held to account in parliamentary hearings.

Other sites like it will no doubt rise to fill the void, but the demise of Omegle shows that times have changed since the 18-year-old programmer launched his experimental social platform.

Imagery of young children carrying out sexual acts on camera has risen more than tenfold since the pandemic lockdowns, according to the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF).

In 2022, the IWF logged more than 63,000 webpages showing the material compared to 5,000 before the pandemic.

Cyber reporter Joe Tidy speaks exclusively with child abuse survivor “Alice” and her legal team, as they prepare a case that could have major consequences for social media companies. Then he tracks down Omegle’s elusive creator, Leif Brooks. source


WORDS FROM THE INVENTOR HIMESELF

“Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.” — C.S. Lewis

“In the beginning the Universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.” — Douglas Adams

Dear strangers,

From the moment I discovered the Internet at a young age, it has been a magical place to me. Growing up in a small town, relatively isolated from the larger world, it was a revelation how much more there was to discover – how many interesting people and ideas the world had to offer.

As a young teenager, I couldn’t just waltz onto a college campus and tell a student: “Let’s debate moral philosophy!” I couldn’t walk up to a professor and say: “Tell me something interesting about microeconomics!” But online, I was able to meet those people, and have those conversations. I was also an avid Wikipedia editor; I contributed to open source software projects; and I often helped answer computer programming questions posed by people many years older than me.

In short, the Internet opened the door to a much larger, more diverse, and more vibrant world than I would have otherwise been able to experience; and enabled me to be an active participant in, and contributor to, that world. All of this helped me to learn, and to grow into a more well-rounded person.

Moreover, as a survivor of childhood rape, I was acutely aware that any time I interacted with someone in the physical world, I was risking my physical body. The Internet gave me a refuge from that fear. I was under no illusion that only good people used the Internet; but I knew that, if I said “no” to someone online, they couldn’t physically reach through the screen and hold a weapon to my head, or worse. I saw the miles of copper wires and fiber-optic cables between me and other people as a kind of shield – one that empowered me to be less isolated than my trauma and fear would have otherwise allowed.

I launched Omegle when I was 18 years old, and still living with my parents. It was meant to build on the things I loved about the Internet, while introducing a form of social spontaneity that I felt didn’t exist elsewhere. If the Internet is a manifestation of the “global village”, Omegle was meant to be a way of strolling down a street in that village, striking up conversations with the people you ran into along the way.

The premise was rather straightforward: when you used Omegle, it would randomly place you in a chat with someone else. These chats could be as long or as short as you chose. If you didn’t want to talk to a particular person, for whatever reason, you could simply end the chat and – if desired – move onto another chat with someone else. It was the idea of “meeting new people” distilled down to almost its platonic ideal.

Building on what I saw as the intrinsic safety benefits of the Internet, users were anonymous to each other by default. This made chats more self-contained, and made it less likely that a malicious person would be able to track someone else down off-site after their chat ended.

I didn’t really know what to expect when I launched Omegle. Would anyone even care about some Web site that an 18 year old kid made in his bedroom in his parents’ house in Vermont, with no marketing budget? But it became popular almost instantly after launch, and grew organically from there, reaching millions of daily users. I believe this had something to do with meeting new people being a basic human need, and with Omegle being among the best ways to fulfill that need. As the saying goes: “If you build a better mousetrap, the world will beat a path to your door.”

Over the years, people have used Omegle to explore foreign cultures; to get advice about their lives from impartial third parties; and to help alleviate feelings of loneliness and isolation. I’ve even heard stories of soulmates meeting on Omegle, and getting married. Those are only some of the highlights.

Unfortunately, there are also lowlights. Virtually every tool can be used for good or for evil, and that is especially true of communication tools, due to their innate flexibility. The telephone can be used to wish your grandmother “happy birthday”, but it can also be used to call in a bomb threat. There can be no honest accounting of Omegle without acknowledging that some people misused it, including to commit unspeakably heinous crimes.

I believe in a responsibility to be a “good Samaritan”, and to implement reasonable measures to fight crime and other misuse. That is exactly what Omegle did. In addition to the basic safety feature of anonymity, there was a great deal of moderation behind the scenes, including state-of-the-art AI operating in concert with a wonderful team of human moderators. Omegle punched above its weight in content moderation, and I’m proud of what we accomplished.

Omegle’s moderation even had a positive impact beyond the site. Omegle worked with law enforcement agencies, and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, to help put evildoers in prison where they belong. There are “people” rotting behind bars right now thanks in part to evidence that Omegle proactively collected against them, and tipped the authorities off to.

All that said, the fight against crime isn’t one that can ever truly be won. It’s a never-ending battle that must be fought and re-fought every day; and even if you do the very best job it is possible for you to do, you may make a sizable dent, but you won’t “win” in any absolute sense of that word. That’s heartbreaking, but it’s also a basic lesson of criminology, and one that I think the vast majority of people understand on some level. Even superheroes, the fictional characters that our culture imbues with special powers as a form of wish fulfillment in the fight against crime, don’t succeed at eliminating crime altogether.

In recent years, it seems like the whole world has become more ornery. Maybe that has something to do with the pandemic, or with political disagreements. Whatever the reason, people have become faster to attack, and slower to recognize each other’s shared humanity. One aspect of this has been a constant barrage of attacks on communication services, Omegle included, based on the behavior of a malicious subset of users.

To an extent, it is reasonable to question the policies and practices of any place where crime has occurred. I have always welcomed constructive feedback; and indeed, Omegle implemented a number of improvements based on such feedback over the years. However, the recent attacks have felt anything but constructive. The only way to please these people is to stop offering the service. Sometimes they say so, explicitly and avowedly; other times, it can be inferred from their act of setting standards that are not humanly achievable. Either way, the net result is the same.

Omegle is the direct target of these attacks, but their ultimate victim is you: all of you out there who have used, or would have used, Omegle to improve your lives, and the lives of others. When they say Omegle shouldn’t exist, they are really saying that you shouldn’t be allowed to use it; that you shouldn’t be allowed to meet random new people online. That idea is anathema to the ideals I cherish – specifically, to the bedrock principle of a free society that, when restrictions are imposed to prevent crime, the burden of those restrictions must not be targeted at innocent victims or potential victims of crime.

Consider the idea that society ought to force women to dress modestly in order to prevent rape. One counter-argument is that rapists don’t really target women based on their clothing; but a more powerful counter-argument is that, irrespective of what rapists do, women’s rights should remain intact. If society robs women of their rights to bodily autonomy and self-expression based on the actions of rapists – even if it does so with the best intentions in the world – then society is practically doing the work of rapists for them.

Fear can be a valuable tool, guiding us away from danger. However, fear can also be a mental cage that keeps us from all of the things that make life worth living. Individuals and families must be allowed to strike the right balance for themselves, based on their own unique circumstances and needs. A world of mandatory fear is a world ruled by fear – a dark place indeed.

I’ve done my best to weather the attacks, with the interests of Omegle’s users – and the broader principle – in mind. If something as simple as meeting random new people is forbidden, what’s next? That is far and away removed from anything that could be considered a reasonable compromise of the principle I outlined. Analogies are a limited tool, but a physical-world analogy might be shutting down Central Park because crime occurs there – or perhaps more provocatively, destroying the universe because it contains evil. A healthy, free society cannot endure when we are collectively afraid of each other to this extent.

Unfortunately, what is right doesn’t always prevail. As much as I wish circumstances were different, the stress and expense of this fight – coupled with the existing stress and expense of operating Omegle, and fighting its misuse – are simply too much. Operating Omegle is no longer sustainable, financially nor psychologically. Frankly, I don’t want to have a heart attack in my 30s.

The battle for Omegle has been lost, but the war against the Internet rages on. Virtually every online communication service has been subject to the same kinds of attack as Omegle; and while some of them are much larger companies with much greater resources, they all have their breaking point somewhere. I worry that, unless the tide turns soon, the Internet I fell in love with may cease to exist, and in its place, we will have something closer to a souped-up version of TV – focused largely on passive consumption, with much less opportunity for active participation and genuine human connection. If that sounds like a bad idea to you, please consider donating to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an organization that fights for your rights online.

From the bottom of my heart, thank you to everyone who used Omegle for positive purposes, and to everyone who contributed to the site’s success in any way. I’m so sorry I couldn’t keep fighting for you.

I thank A.M. for opening my eyes to the human cost of Omegle.

Sincerely,
Leif K-Brooks
Founder, Omegle.com LLC