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Yahoo's Secret War

By Annalee Newitz

There has been sensational gossip in the web world ever since Yahoo's mid-April announcement that it would be expanding its "adult" (i.e. sex-related) content. Two days after this business decision, Yahoo freaked: suddenly, in a move that made the already-unstable company look like their biz development department was run by monkeys, Yahoo announced that it would be completely removing all "adult and erotica" vendors from its Shopping and Classified networks, as well as its banner ads.

Yahoo offered few concrete reasons for its surprising about-face, other than to note that they were responding to "user concerns." InternetNews noted that the conservative Capitol Resource Institute in Sacramento had called on consumers to boycott Yahoo, but it seems unlikely that this threat was responsible for Yahoo's sudden, extensive business reorganization.

Probably we'll never know exactly what Yahoo's inscrutable reasons were for shutting down its adult shops. We can be sure that Yahoo has begun waging a secret and weirdly disorganized war on its loyal users who are part of the adult-related Clubs and Groups networks.

Although the company has made no public announcements about curbing adult content in Clubs and Groups--user-run community areas which service hundreds of thousands of people--it has begun to shut down adult clubs without notice. More importantly, Yahoo is cutting off a community support lifeline for many people whose sexual lifestyles may lead to their isolation if they live in areas without an urban center.

One Yahoo adult-club moderator, who asked to remain anonymous, recently sent a email to her club membership telling them that she feels she's been forced to remove members from her community whose Yahoo "user profiles" are largely sexual in nature. She's had to do this just to protect the existence of her club, which is a discussion space for nontraditional relationship issues.

Yahoo has announced publicly that it is "evaluating adult content across the network," but there is a difference between evaluation and censorship. Shutting down community groups without notice or due process is censorship at its worst: it destroys communities which may have taken years to evolve, purely on the basis of what its members are writing to each other about.

I'm the first to admit that some of these groups are little more than public places to trade porn pictures. But so what? If Yahoo is so concerned about "user response," why are they treating these users like crap? How hard is it for Yahoo to send out a polite email notifying clubs or groups that they will be shut down? With forewarning, group moderators at least have the time to notify their members and can find another service to carry their community.

When I spoke to Yahoo spokesperson Jackson Holtz, he claimed that Yahoo hadn't shut down any groups. He added that the adult index in Clubs was "down for maintenance," but that it would be back up when the maintenance was finished. Um, hello? Websites aren't like buildings--you don't have to shut them down to "maintain" them. You can make site changes on a thing called a "computer" while the site is still live, then upload the changes to the site.

Holtz also confirmed that Yahoo has "not communicated directly with users" about its evaluation policies. When I asked him who was evaluating the adult clubs and groups, or when they would be finished, he refused to speculate.

Needless to say, word of Yahoo's "evaluation" methods has spread like wildfire across the adult Clubs and Groups networks. Many sex-related groups are changing their club membership, like the club moderator I mentioned earlier, or are preemptively moving their memberships to MSN's Communities network (smooth move, Yahoo, sending your customers over to Microsoft). A Microsoft spokesperson told me that the company has no plans to crack down on adult communities as long as they abide by MSN's code of conduct and terms of use.

I never thought I'd be saying something nice about Microsoft, or reporting something so despicable about Yahoo. But there you go. One of my heroes has let me down; one of my enemies has pleasantly surprised me.

Annalee Newitz ([email protected]) is a surly media nerd who learned everything from pornography.

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From the May 3-9, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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