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It had been another long day going from video call to video call, when suddenly a stranger appeared on my screen.

I saw my own face pull back when it became obvious that my interlocutor was undressing. Before full disclosure, I managed to hang up. Another beautiful escape from the dangers of an unprotected webcam.

It wasn’t an episode of “Zoombombing” – of which there have been plenty of them lately, as gatecrashers invade conference calls on the favorite video app of quarantined office workers.

In fact, it happened a decade ago when I had my first contact with indecent exposure on the internet courtesy of Chatroulette – the original live video site.

In 2010, Chatroulette went from being a “viral” teen programmer phenomenon (when we could still use that word) to Internet notoriety within weeks. Who could have predicted that the random association of the webcams of two anonymous strangers, without any kind of registration or moderation, would be hijacked by flashers and amateur pornographers?

Chatroulette’s widely documented “penis problem” should have taught every tech company a few lessons about the risks of live streaming online.

But, in the years that followed, some of the most popular social networks and video apps – Facebook, YouTube, Twitch, and now Zoom – have been humiliated time and time again by the impossible task of controlling a live video feed that can be created by anyone. , Anytime and anywhere.

These companies – some of the most valuable in the world – have been unable to prevent abuse, whether it be the Zoom bombardment of remote classrooms or the live broadcast of terrorist attacks.

The risks haven’t stopped millions of us from turning to Zoom, Houseparty, FaceTime, and other video apps in recent weeks as we try to keep our social lives at bay.

Not since BlackBerry’s heyday has a business tool grown into mass market popularity like Zoom. While the company has come under justifiable scrutiny for various security and privacy missteps, we also have to marvel that Zoom has continued to operate, given that its daily usage has grown from 10 million people to 200 million in just three months.

However, there is one industry veteran who doubts all of these live video apps will maintain their current appeal after the lockdowns are lifted: the founder of Chatroulette.

“I don’t think the Internet is all it’s supposed to be,” Andrey Ternovskiy tells me via Skype. “In the sense that it’s still sophomore stuff compared to real life.” Ternovskiy, who was only 17 when he launched the site, has maintained Chatroulette on his own for most of the past decade.

The past few weeks have seen a resurgence in user numbers, although the audience remains well below the 1 million people per day who visited in 2010.

Despite the introduction of a “filtered” mode that promises a “secure chat” and an optional blur mechanism to hide unexpected nudity, Chatroulette’s penis problem remains unresolved. After trying for so long to tackle the problem, Ternovskiy has now resigned himself to it.

“It will always be a problem,” he says, when enough people join an online community. “If you have a system where everyone meets everyone, it’s a bit like the corona. If it weren’t for the d ** ks, it would be something else … If you leave a door open on the internet, someone will barge in.

Some online setups have succeeded in containing the abuse, he says, highlighting eBay ratings and some cryptocurrency schemes. But these days, the founder of Chatroulette is more excited about virtual reality networking than video chat rooms.

“In VR, I had that kind of ‘wow’ moment,” he says. “When I use it, I have this magical feeling of being there… It’s just boring spending all day in a video conference. ”

Chatroulette is a lot of things, but it’s rarely boring. On a recent 10 minute visit, I encountered four faceless naked men, a racist rant, and an unusual conversation with a driver in Germany.

From behind the wheel, with his yellow air freshener hanging in front of his smartphone camera, my new boyfriend told me he was skipping curfew to meet a friend in a park.

“We just couldn’t take it anymore, just sitting at home all day,” he told me, unable to tear himself away from his video app even as he escaped the lockdown.

Tim Bradshaw is the FT’s Global Technology Correspondent

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