Two years ago, Yahoo! began flogging hardcore pornographic videos on its US Web sites, No-one, except for a few customers we assume, noticed, until last Monday, when the LA Times noted the relaunch of the portal's adult section.
The news spread like wildfire, and in results week too; by Thursday, Yahoo! had been swamped by so many complaints that it announced its decision to stop selling porn products on Yahoo! Shopping, Yahoo! Auctions and Yahoo! Classifieds.
The company is going even further - it is to stop being a pornmonger altogether, by pulling banner ads from hardcore Web sites (although it will honour existing contracts).
Yahoo! individual country managers are allowed to make their own policy on porn matters, but it seems unlikely that they will diverge too far from their parent company.
Yahoo! says the decision will have an immaterial effect on results - so why was it involved in flogging and advertising hardcore porn in the first place?
Yahoo! is a mass-market operation, and mass-market operations do not sell pornography. Full stop. This is not simply a question of morality, but simple business sense - annoy too many customers and you will end up being a non-mass market business.
Porn No More
By scrapping the sale of pornography on its US auction site, the company shows that it can, when it is forced by American public opinion, take responsibility for what is sold. It shows just how hollow was Yahoo!'s free-speech argument, when confronted by demands from the French government to bar access to Nazi memorabilia from its citizens.
Yahoo! has a choice, a business moral choice, to allow or to ban the sale of Nazi memorabilia on its auction site... as it does with porn.
In the case of porn, the company cannot say that it is merely a conduit for other people's activities. By taking porn advertising, by taking commission from video porn retailers, Yahoo! is, or was actively involved in trafficking pornography.
The porn controversy won't simply die down either - the company now has the American Family Association on its tail. In a press release, the lobby group accuses Yahoo! of trafficking child pornography, through its Yahoo! Geocities operation. It urges the Attorney General to take action.
Now we all know that Geocities is a communities portal, and that Yahoo! has no involvement in the content of member sites, and that it has rules expressly forbidding members to post illegal content on their sites. And that, when the company is alerted to illegal material (especially child pornography), it will shut down the offending site - maybe contact the appropriate authorities even. In other words, Yahoo! takes responsibility.
However you dress it, portals are not simply blind common carriers, in the manner of the telcos - even in the US. (In February, Buffalo, NY -based ISP BuffNET was fined for hosting a child porn site, even after it had been informed about the nature of the Web site's business).
This makes for complicated checks and balances for content-publishing ISPs, and huge professional indemnity insurance premiums, but that's the game they're in. ®