SAN JOSE, Calif. -- When Yahoo! Inc. got rid of the adult videos and DVDs on its shopping pages last month, the popular Internet site wasn't done wrestling with pornography.
During the last few weeks, Yahoo quietly has reconfigured its adult-themed online clubs, message boards and chat rooms, removing links to them and making them harder to find, members say. Many users believe the clubs will fail to attract new members and ultimately disappear altogether.
Those members say they feel betrayed, and have assembled Internet petitions with thousands of complaints. Some also say Yahoo's action actually makes it easier for children to see adult content.
Yahoo spokesman Jackson Holtz said the company has made several changes as "part of the evaluation of adult content across the network." But he said no decisions have been made on whether the changes will be permanent. "It's the Internet, so lots of things are possible," he said.
The furor illustrates what has long been clear: Looking at porn and talking about it is one of the Web's most popular activities. Companies such as Yahoo, which boasts that it is devoted to the wishes of its 192 million registered users, find that no matter how they handle the issue, someone is going to be upset.
"If they completely eliminate adult material from the site, they're going to lose a lot of members who are interested in that," said Ken Bradman, a 23-year-old Web developer in Phoenix who has organized a protest club on the issue. "I can guarantee you it's going to be a huge chunk of Yahoo's user base."
On the other hand, conservative groups say Yahoo isn't doing nearly enough to keep its sites clean, especially its GeoCities pages, where users can post pictures and other content. Although Yahoo expressly forbids nudity and pornography on GeoCities, the company doesn't take down violators' sites unless someone complains about them directly.
"They have some extremely hardcore and very gross Web sites, including those that pander themselves as child sex and teen sex," said Jan LaRue, senior director of legal studies for the Family Research Council in Washington. "My larger concern is what they're making available and what they're profiting from and that they're being totally honest with the public."
The porn issue bubbled up three weeks ago, when the Los Angeles Times reported that Yahoo had increased the number of porn films available on its shopping pages, where the company gets a cut of the sales.
Yahoo had sold X-rated products for two years and said the increase of those items did not outpace the overall growth of the shopping section. But most major Internet companies have kept a greater distance from porn sales, and thousands of users swamped Yahoo with angry e-mails. Yahoo announced April 13 that it would cease selling adult products.
The company also said it would stop accepting banner ads, classifieds and auction items with adult themes and promised to more aggressively police sex-related message boards and clubs.
Yahoo users can set up online clubs and post messages, pictures and Internet links on just about any topic. The subjects range from the general, such as bluegrass music, to the very specific - such as places in Delaware where people can meet for sex on their lunch breaks.
It's unclear how many people use the adult clubs, because Yahoo does not disclose those numbers. America Online, Excite, Terra Lycos and Microsoft's MSN also host clubs on thousands of subjects, but some Yahoo users say they can more easily find people with similar interests on the massive Yahoo site.
Users say that in the past few weeks, Yahoo took out a direct link to adult-themed clubs from its overall clubs page. Users had to affirm they were 18 or older to use the link. The members also say Yahoo disabled some search functions that often were used to find the groups. That means that to find a club, users have to know its Internet address and type that in directly.
Some members have re-listed links to their clubs in other parts of the site, including in mainstream sections open to people of all ages.
Yahoo certainly isn't alone in trying to figure out what to do with adult content.
Terra Lycos, for example, recently clarified its user agreement and is re-evaluating its porn policies, said Jeff Strawbridge, director of customer service.
"I believe we are entering a very volatile period for personal Web use," said Yahoo user Alan Schaubel, a 53-year-old married artist in Kenosha, Wis., who collects adult images as a hobby. "The current Yahoo action relative to adult content is only the tip of the cyberberg."
On the Net:
Clubs page: http://clubs.yahoo.com
Petition page: http://www.geocities.com/webmastercast/petition.html
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