Better Business Bureau and AltaVista at odds over Web site

Today, a week after online Web search site AltaVista Co. closed the last of its Web portal chat room and e-mail services, the Council of Better Business Bureaus announced that AltaVista took the actions to protect minors who were formerly able to access services that included online pornography.

The problem, according to AltaVista spokesman Jim Shissler, is that the claim by the bureau isn't true.

Instead, Shissler said, the Palo Alto, Calif.-based company removed the chat room, e-mail and other community features from its Web site last week because of a business decision made by the company in September, when it announced that it was leaving the portal business to concentrate on being a search engine site (see story).

"That [Better Business Bureau] press release is inaccurate," Shissler said. "We've not changed any features on our site" in response to the agency. While the company had had communications with the Better Business Bureau about the portal, those talks didn't lead to the closures, he said.

In its statement today, the bureau stated it was "pleased to announce that AltaVista Co. has modified its Web site in order to protect the safety of children."

Not so, Shissler said. "I wish I could tell you why they would put out a press release like that."

Phyllis Spaeth, a senior staff attorney for the Children's Advertising Review Unit at the Council of Better Business Bureaus in New York, said her agency had been in discussions with AltaVista attorneys since last year about concerns that minors could easily use features on the portal page that could expose them to pornography. In response, the company advised the bureau in December that the portal would soon be removed because it was heading in a different business direction, she said.

Guidelines to protect children from online hazards, including viewing online pornography or being able to post personally identifiable information without getting parental permission, are found in the federal Children's Online Privacy Protection Act. Part of Children's Advertising Review Unit's jurisdiction in protecting children, she said, is watching over advertising on the Internet (see story).

Spaeth said the press release was issued today because the online portal has now been closed, but she backed away from the claim in the release that AltaVista closed the portal to protect children.

"I don't want to give the impression that we forced them to take down their [online] community," she said. "It was a decision they had made before."

AltaVista laid off 225, or 25%, of its workers in September in an effort to reach profitability. The Web portal company has had financial problems in spite of major financial backing from Internet investing company CMGI Inc. in Andover, Mass., which bought AltaVista from Compaq Computer Corp. for $2.3 billion in 1999.

This story, "Better Business Bureau and AltaVista at odds over Web site " was originally published by Computerworld.

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