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updated 2/19/2008 12:48:01 PM ET 2008-02-19T17:48:01

China's top Internet search engine, Baidu.com, has been censured by a government-sponsored watchdog for allegedly helping spread sexually explicit photos that appear to feature several Hong Kong stars.

The photos, which appear to show actor Edison Chen and several female stars performing sex acts or in sexually suggestive poses, are believed to have originated in Hong Kong. They have circulated widely here.

News of the scandal has dominated Hong Kong headlines for several weeks.

China keeps tighter watch over the Internet than semiautonomous Hong Kong, however, and the government-sponsored Beijing Association of Online Media said in a statement on its Web site Tuesday that Baidu helped spread the racy pictures in the mainland.

The group said certain keyword searches and certain pages on the Baidu site "have become the platform for displaying and spreading these filthy pictures." The association demanded that the Web site apologize.

"While other Beijing Internet companies have boycotted the spread of the racy photos, Baidu still hasn't implemented effective blocking and obscuring of the photos and has become defensive and procrastinated, leading to the stagnation of a large amount of pornographic, filthy pictures," the watchdog said in the statement, which was dated Monday.

China bans pornography, although the government's Internet police struggle to block pornographic Web sites based abroad. The government recently released new rules giving it more control over Internet videos and video-sharing Web sites.

The government regularly censors and restricts access to content it considers subversive or politically sensitive, and Chinese Web sites often hire their own censors to screen for potentially problematic content.

The association praised other Chinese Web sites, such as NetEase.com, Sina.com and Sohu.com for urging their users not to spread the photos.

Baidu said it didn't have immediate comment.

China's online population has soared to 210 million people. The country could surpass the United States this year to become host to the world's biggest online community, the official China Internet Network Information Center said last month.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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