Yahoo Inc. and Microsoft Corp., two of the nation's biggest Internet companies, are facing mounting criticism about the ease with which consumers--particularly children--can access explicit sexual material on their online networks.
Like music fans with Napster, tens of millions of Internet users have transformed the club and community sections of Yahoo and Microsoft's MSN networks into havens for swapping hard-core images.
Several religious and civic groups say these sites--unlike ones offered by rivals--make it easy for children to view explicit material. Neither Yahoo nor MSN requires physical proof of age or a credit card number to enter adult areas.
Microsoft and Yahoo officials acknowledge that some of their more than 70 million members have created virtual red-light districts, just as some have built communities for snowboarding and needlepoint. But the companies say their role is not to play morality police on the Net.
"While we provide adult sections within some community services to age-appropriate audiences, we do not condone unlawful content on our network" such as child pornography, said Joanna Stevens, director of Yahoo's corporate communications.
MSN echoed that sentiment. Spokeswoman Sarah Lefko said the service focuses on pulling material that is blatantly illegal, such as child pornography, bestiality and incest.
The approach of MSN and Yahoo contrasts with that of some of its rivals, including America Online. Although the nation's biggest Internet company is well-known for risque chat rooms, AOL prohibits the posting of pornographic images or videos on its service.
Smaller Internet players, such as Terra Lycos, allow users to create adult clubs but have discouraged such activities by making it difficult to find those groups.
Neither Microsoft nor Yahoo will say how many of the clubs and communities on their networks host explicit fare. A search for the word "porn" in MSN's communities area brings up more than 2,700 sites. There are more than 1,700 "Triple X" sites in Yahoo's adult club section, according to a directory of links compiled by one Web site.
An Internet club operates like a virtual bulletin board. Users can chat and share photographs, videos, e-mail addresses and other information.
Finding these gathering spots is fairly simple. On MSN, a user needs only to type erotic words into a search engine that scours through all of the service's online communities.
Yahoo clubs are set apart in an area called "online clubs." Consumers say they find specific adult clubs by word of mouth, on search engines such as Google or in Yahoo's "most popular" list of romance clubs.
Yahoo and MSN have resisted pressure to eliminate sexual content from their networks.
"We've tried to talk to these technology companies, and they just refuse to listen," said Patrick Trueman, director of government affairs for the American Family Assn. and former chief of the U.S. Justice Department's Child Exploitation and Obscenity section under then-President George Bush.
Trueman said his group has joined forces with the Family Research Council and the Traditional Values Coalition, as well as Concerned Women for America, a 600,000-member public policy group.
The AFA, which since mid-June has been issuing one news release a week targeting specific Yahoo clubs, says it will present a petition to the company this fall calling for a ban on all adult clubs.
The group also is organizing a boycott of the search engine and its advertisers, including insurance firm State Farm, PC maker Dell Computer Corp. and brokerage giant Fidelity Investments.
Yahoo Cut Off Public Links to Adult Clubs
Yahoo's Stevens said that it is up to consumers to alert the company to problems and that "we have a strong track record of taking appropriate action."
Yahoo has tried to make the clubs less visible. In April, the company altered the directories that users need to navigate the site and cut off public links to its adult clubs.
This has not prevented users from continuing to flock to the clubs. "No one has the right to dictate to another what they can or cannot view or be into," wrote one user to the club Yahoo Petitions, a site created to protest Yahoo's move.
The debate has gotten the attention of the federal government. In June, U.S. Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft told a House Judiciary Committee that he was concerned about obscenity on the Internet and "concerned about obscenity as it relates to our children." Justice officials have since said they are focusing on child pornography and pedophile rings.
Consumers who frequent the adult clubs say Microsoft and Yahoo have made it easier for the more than 100 million people worldwide who use their sites each month to find porn images for free.
The two services also are familiar turf for children, many of whom have grown up searching the Yahoo directory for help with their homework, meeting friends on Yahooligans and playing games and watching movie clips on MSN.