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"Family friendly" ISP in pornography flap

A Web site promising child-safe Net access backed by high-profile religious leaders and former education secretary William Bennett has one big problem: It offers easy access to pornography.

High-profile religious leaders and former Education Secretary William Bennett unveiled a child-safe Net access service today, promising to weed out "poisonous" content--but it turns out that the company's own Web site is a potential gateway to pornography.

Although most online services offer optional content filters, the new company, This.com, hoped to establish itself as a "trusted name for families" by reviewing all Web sites customers try to enter and screening out "unwanted" material. The company is charging $21.95 per month for its brand of Internet access.

Despite its pledge, however, This.com's Web search function could hamper its attempt to lure customers who are seeking refuge from the Net's red-light districts. The company's embedded search engine, GoTo, allows visitors to seek out sexually explicit content and then "frames" the adult material within This.com's site. That means surfers can view adult content without leaving This.com.

To underscore its commitment to Net safety, This.com is touting its well-known board members, who include Bennett, education secretary during the Reagan administration; Ralph Reed, former executive director of the Christian Coalition; and Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

This.com's situation reflects the difficulty sites and companies face in curbing young Net surfers' access to adult content. Other online services promoting child-safe features have run into similar problems. Earlier this year, Excite's Magellan Internet Guide offered hard-core pornography advertisements in an area that was supposed to lock out content "intended for mature audiences only."

"They may have been trying to prove a point that there is bad stuff out there and that you need filters as one line of defense," Monique Nelson, chief operating officer for antiporn group Enough is Enough, said of This.com. "But if I were a parent--and I am--and I went to their site to check it out, I would probably test the search for sexual content, and I would be very upset. If this is a marketing strategy, it's a gross error on their part."

This.com's visitors are warned once through a pop-up window that, if they aren't customers of the ISP, their Net surfing will not be filtered. But the new company's executives acknowledge that the warning is insufficient and that the incorporation of GoTo could confuse consumers.

"Consumer perception is extremely important," This.com chief executive Brad Daniel told CNET News.com today.

"We knew that [GoTo] wasn't filtered. My concern is that the warning page only comes up the first time someone goes to our site," he added. "I just called our Webmaster and told him we need to put a warning near the search box."

No money changes hands under the terms of the deal between This.com and GoTo, and the ISP doesn't profit from the porn sites that pay GoTo for premium placement on its search results page, the company said. But consumers probably won't understand those distinctions, analysts say--and that could be bad for business.

"For most consumers the access point is irrelevant," said Patrick Keane, a Net analyst at research firm Jupiter Communications.

"It's pretty quickly going to hurt their proposition as a 'safe' ISP if they don't have a filtered search," he said. "GoTo delivers search frequencies to the highest bidder, when other search engines review the sites they display. So GoTo is about the worst site they could partner with."

Still, GoTo is hardly alone in its potential to provide X-rated material. Adult-oriented sites often account for most portals largest advertisers and query generators.

Framing adult sites could further erode This.com's "family friendly" image when it begins building out its Web portal. In about six months, the company plans to feature a Net directory for children that includes original content, chat rooms, games, investment information, and movie reviews.

This.com even envisions a day when it will get paid for driving traffic to sites such as GoTo. "If we are driving millions of eyeballs to a site, we are certainly going to want to be compensated for that," Daniel said.

The obstacles are not lost on This.com's top executive, but the company doesn't plan to drop GoTo or stop framing the site. "Our focus now is to offer a filtered dial-up Internet service, and that is the primary concern," Daniel said.