July 30, 2002
The same accessibility and anonymity that make the Web so popular also make it dangerous to sex-seeking users, multiplying "the probability of high-risk people meeting high-risk people," said Colorado epidemiologist John Potterat. Sex-oriented chat rooms could become "the eBay of homosexual sex," he said.
Officials have no means of systematically monitoring the sites. "We are not keeping up," said Peter Kerndt, director of STD control for Los Angeles County. Worse than that, "we have little sense of what approaches would be effective." The numbers are large, according to Gay.com. Over 150,000 members sign on to the chat rooms every day.
In California, Colorado, Kentucky, Maine, and other states, public health officials have tracked outbreaks of STDs to chat room meetings. In San Francisco, 18 percent of the gay and bisexual men diagnosed with early forms of syphilis last year said they had found sex partners on the Internet. In Los Angeles County, the figure was 13 percent.
With the help of disease investigators in 1999, Dr. Jeffrey Klausner, San Francisco's STD controller, linked seven men's syphilis infections to an overlapping network of 99 recent sexual partners. One of the infected men had 47 partners. Staff and volunteers spent hours on AOL's chat rooms alerting users to the outbreak. In the end, fewer than half of the seven men's sexual partners were notified and tested because there is no way of actually identifying a user who uses an online screen name and changes it regularly. Internet providers won't release the real identities of users except by court order. Today, the San Francisco Health Department pays Gay.com to run banner advertisements in its West Coast chat rooms and arranges for Klausner to answer user's questions.