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AltaVista under fire from child protection agency

The Web portal abandons many of its community features after the Better Business Bureau finds the site too loose in preventing children from visiting adult-only areas.

Web portal AltaVista has abandoned many of its community features after the Better Business Bureau found the site too loose in preventing children from visiting adult-only areas.

The scrapped services include bulletin boards, chat rooms and online registration. A Web portal typically asks visitors to register their identities on its site. In return for an age, e-mail address and name, visitors can participate in chat rooms and other offerings.

"AltaVista has closed down all of its community services," the company stated through a BBB release. "AltaVista is committed to screening children under the age of 13 from accessing adult content on the AltaVista Web site."

AltaVista spokesman David Emanuel labeled the report a "publicity stunt," said the company's decision to remove the community features on its site was not directly in response to the report's findings. Rather, the company was planning to remove the features as part of an overall restructuring of its services.

This is the latest instance of the BBB's efforts to warn Internet companies of potential problems before taking cases to federal regulators. Its Children's Advertising Review Unit (CARU) can solicit investigations by the Federal Trade Commission if a company continues to violate its child protection principles or the federal Children's Online Privacy Protection Act.

Many times, CARU issues press statements before alerting regulators, a move that can be equally embarrassing for the company.

CARU has confronted other Internet companies that have pushed the envelope on child online protection measures. In October, CARU issued a report reprimanding Walt Disney because children who register on Disney.com can easily visit the company's Go.com Web portal and access adult online chat rooms.

According to a report filed by CARU on Jan. 23, AltaVista had many loopholes that would allow children access to adult-oriented areas. For example, CARU found that AltaVista's registration process did not adequately screen teenagers and children to keep them from entering more risque parts of its site.

Furthermore, CARU alleged that the registration process made it easy for children to lie about their ages. The report also said the portal came up short in preventing children from re-registering as an older age after being rejected the first time.

It further criticized AltaVista for permitting certain adult "club" communities to allow anyone--registered or not--to access pornographic images.

CARU confirmed AltaVista had taken down its community areas Feb. 6.

Some of the features removed by AltaVista have been essential for Web portals such as Yahoo and Microsoft's MSN to lure tens of millions of customers every month. Many companies attempting to compete with the giants have added similar features. But as smaller portals such as AltaVista, Go.com, Excite.com and NBC Internet have experienced, it can be expensive to fight for the top. The cost has caused many small services to fall by the wayside or restructure their efforts.

AltaVista, majority-owned by Internet investment company CMGI, has been one of those companies moving in a new direction. For nearly a year, the company has been gravitating from being a portal toward focusing solely on Web searches.

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