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Child crusaders triumph in AltaVista service cutback

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A pious arm of the Better Business Bureau called the Children's Advertising Review Unit (CARU) implies that it successfully bullied AltaVista into shutting down its 'community services' like free e-mail and chat rooms on concerns that children might be led astray by viewing porn or chatting with adults.

The good Samaritans at CARU were shocked to find that AltaVista was querying children about their ages before allowing them to register on areas of the site meant for older kids and adults. This, CARU reckoned, was a violation of the brats' privacy under the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), which it dutifully brought to AltaVista's attention.

Even worse, by asking children to state their ages, AltaVista was encouraging the innocent lambs to lie, CARU insists (something they never do of their own accord, we are sure). According to CARU, with all this in mind, AltaVista promptly responded by amending its registration procedures to preserve the natural virtue of America's tender sprouts.

"The Children's Advertising Review Unit (CARU) of the Council of Better Business Bureaus is pleased to announce that AltaVista Company has modified its Web site in order to protect the safety of children," a recent CARU press release gloats.

Meanwhile, AltaVista dropped numerous on-line services, for which CARU is all too pleased to take credit. "Until a week ago, AltaVista was a full service Internet portal that, in addition to its search engine, offered such interactive features as chat rooms, photo albums, personal home pages and free Internet service including free e-mail," the press release states.

"AltaVista has closed down all of its community services and offered no interactive features on its Web site. CARU is gratified that AltaVista has taken all the above-stated actions."

It's that triumphalist word "gratified" which implies that AltaVista capitulated to CARU's righteous finger-wagging, and shut adults out of services to which they were accustomed because some brat somewhere might be harmed by the site's content.

Publicity Stunt

Sounds great, or horrible, depending on how you feel about the trend towards reducing Web content to infant babble; only AltaVista has slightly different version of events.

First off, the free e-mail service cited in the CARU press release remains up and running, and there are no immediate plans to do away with it, the company told The Register.

Second, discontinuing the chat rooms has "no relation whatever" to CARU's interference, AltaVista spokesman Dave Emanuel told us. "That decision was made back in September."

The company made the decision because despite its best efforts to expand into a Yahoo-esque portal, their customers remain primarily interested in the search engine, the company says. "Ninety per cent of activity on our site begins with a search," Emanuel observed.

As for why CARU worded its press release so as to imply that their watchful oversight brought AltaVista to heel, Emanuel has a simple explanation. "I think it's nothing more than a publicity stunt," he told us.

CARU's motive, then, appears to be a spin campaign touting the real-world effectiveness of industry self-regulation in matters of on-line privacy and child protection, for which it holds itself up as a potent guardian at the expense of the facts -- an explanation which we find altogether too plausible. ®

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