SAN FRANCISCO - Family advocacy groups lauded Yahoo Inc. on Thursday for closing its chat rooms to clean up areas that allegedly were used to prey on children.
Over the past month, pressure has been building on Yahoo to crack down on chat rooms that promoted sex with minors. After learning some of their advertisements were showing up in such chat rooms, companies such as PepsiCo Inc., Georgia-Pacific Corp. and State Farm Insurance removed their ads.
Yahoo's move came after a lawsuit was filed against the Internet portal last month on behalf of a 12-year-old molestation victim and following a long campaign by watchdog groups to persuade Yahoo and other large Internet portals to purge their sites of child porn. The suit seeks $10 million in damages.
"The specific reason for the closure not withstanding, this is a positive a step in the online fight against child exploitation," said Michelle Collins, director of the exploited children unit at The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, based in Alexandria, Va.
Yahoo spokeswoman Mary Osako said the company closed down user-created sites to make enhancements and to ensure users were adhering to the site's terms of service.
But after years of trying to persuade Sunnyvale-based Yahoo to go after child pornographers operating within the chat rooms, critics suspect the threat of a costly civil suit and the potential loss of advertising dollars likely prompted Yahoo to act.
Patrick Truman, a senior legal counsel for the conservative Christian group, Family Research Council and a former federal prosecutor, believes Yahoo has the means to police its site more effectively than it does. The company acknowledges that it does not monitor its chat rooms.
"I'm glad a suit has finally been brought because it will give someone access to the way Yahoo operates," Truman said. "Records can now be subpoenaed that will show the kind of knowledge Yahoo has about the trade of child pornography in its chat rooms."
In 2002, an FBI investigation revealed that child pornography was being distributed on a Yahoo Group called Candyman. Yahoo Groups are similar to chat rooms but allow members to access their own Web site within Yahoo and communicate via e-mail. Candyman operated two months before being shut down.
Among the photographs circulated on Candyman was one of a 12-year-old boy from Georgia who was molested and photographed committing sex acts against his will, according to the boy's attorney, Adam Voyles.
The lawsuit claims Yahoo, which has until July to respond to the suit, is liable for what transpired within Candyman.
"These problems are not new," Voyles said. "It's been going on since the 1990s. Yahoo has not changed its behavior. I hope it does. I hope they take this opportunity to clean up."
Meanwhile, Yahoo must move to shore up its relationship with some of its sponsors.
Pepsi removed ads that were being displayed in the suspect chat rooms, but continued to advertise elsewhere on Yahoo. But Atlanta-based Georgia-Pacific, the maker of Brawny paper towels, removed all its ads from Yahoo, company spokeswoman, Robin Keegan said.
"We were absolutely horrified to find out about this," Keegan said, adding that the company had no knowledge that their ads were appearing in the chat rooms in question.
Some users who obeyed the site's rules were upset by Yahoo's decision to close down all user-created sites, posting online complaints about the decision.