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Excite serving porn ads on "kid-safe" searches

The portal's Magellan Internet Guide is dishing up hard-core pornography advertisements alongside supposedly squeaky clean queries.

Excite's kid-safe search engine is supposed to reveal only virtuous Web sites, but is dishing up hard-core pornography advertisements alongside the squeaky clean queries.

The leading portal incorporates McKinley's Magellan Internet Guide, which lets visitors search through so-called green light sites, Web pages free of content "intended for mature audiences." For example, when a surfer types in the word "sex," the list of reviewed sites includes Discovery Online or the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children's home page.

But while Excite's Magellan guide is screening adult-oriented content, the same search on the term "sex" also displays "Rated-XXX" banner advertisements with sexually explicit photos.

The discrepancy, first-reported by the British news publication The Register, has angered at least one child advocacy group.

"Sites that are claiming to create a safe haven for children, need to make sure it is one," said Parry Aftab, executive director of CyberAngels, a volunteer group that monitors the Net for child pornography and educates parents about curbing their children's access to adult-oriented sites.

Aftab said she complained to the Federal Trade Commission today upon being notified that explicit ads were appearing on the green light search engine. The FTC was not immediately available for comment, but a spokesperson told The Register that the agency had received a complaint.

"Excite has an obligation to make sure the filter the ads on their green light section," Aftab added. "They are selling it as a clean site, but they've got adult banners. It clearly falls under the standard consumer fraud statute."

Excite said today the adult advertisements will be removed from the "green light" section of Magellan within 24 hours.

"Running adult banners on 'green light site' search responses was an oversight that will be sanitized immediately. No further adult advertising will be seen on [those] search results pages," said an Excite spokeswoman.

However, Excite did not concede that the green light engine was deceptive.

"We have not been contacted by the FTC regarding this or any other matter," the spokeswoman added. "This is not a consumer fraud issue, as stated by Ms. Aftab."

After publicized instances of children searching the Web for "Little Women" and discovering sites that would have made the characters in Louisa May Alcott's classic novel blush, companies from Disney and Yahoo jumped in to build Net directories for youngsters.

But the effectiveness of "safe surfing" tools for children has been questioned many times before. For example, adult entertainment ads and sexual site descriptions featured on search engines have been known to slip by blocking programs installed on personal computers.

Also, many civil liberties advocates have opposed mandatory use of blocking technologies in libraries or schools because in the past some products have screened out content that many say is protected by the First Amendment, such as sites about gay and lesbian issues or women's rights.

But criticizing filtering programs or children's search engines is a double-edge sword for free speech groups, who also argue that the technologies work better than laws to protect minors from the Net's red-light districts.