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Violence Against Women on the Internet

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The New York Times

April 14, 2001, Saturday, Late Edition - Final

After Complaints, Yahoo to Close Access to Pornographic Sites


Faced with a flood of criticism from users, Yahoo, the vast Internet service, reversed a longstanding policy and said yesterday that it would remove a wide range of pornographic material from its site and make other such information harder to find.

Yahoo closed a section devoted to pornographic videos in its shopping area, and it said that it would no longer take advertisements from pornographic Web sites. The company also said it was moving to restrict what it termed "inappropriate material" from home pages created by its members of its Geocities service. Yahoo said it would make it more difficult to use its popular search engine to find listings for pornographic Web sites.

Currently, any Yahoo user that types any of hundreds of sexually related terms into the search engine will be shown a results page with a list of related sites, with short descriptions compiled by Yahoo's editors. The advertisement on that page is likely to relate to pornographic content.

For years, Yahoo officials defended these practices, arguing that it was simply offering the information of interest to each user. Those that did not want to see pornographic content, merchandise and ads, it argued, simply should not search for them.

Yahoo changed its policy after an article appeared in The Los Angeles Times on Wednesday taking note of the "Adult and Erotica" section of Yahoo's video shopping area. This section was introduced last December and contained a directory of adult videos and links to stores that sell them.

The article unleashed a number of additional news articles on Yahoo's promotion of pornographic material. Jeffrey Mallet, Yahoo's president, said the company received 100,000 e-mail messages complaining about the pornographic content since the article appeared.

"We had very significant feedback from our users," Mr. Mallett said. "And we felt that they were right that we would make Yahoo a better experience."

He said that Yahoo chose to change its longstanding policy because it was serving a broader and more diverse audience than when it started accepting ads for pornographic sites in 1997. He declined to say how much money Yahoo would be giving up as a result of the policy changes other than to say that pornography-related businesses never represented more than 10 percent of the company's revenue and that they now account for far less than that.

Yahoo's online shopping area had links to about 100 Internet stores selling pornographic videotapes and DVD's. As in all sections of Yahoo's shopping area, merchants pay a commission of 2 percent of their sales. To get to the adult area, users needed to verify that they were above 18 by entering a valid credit card number.

For the last two years, Yahoo has sold all of its advertising space related to pornography to one company, WebPower, which has offices in San Francisco and Lake Worth, Fla. WebPower operates several sites, including the Intimate Friends Network, a service matching exhibitionists and voyeurs. Customers pay a fee to engage in video chat with more than 35,000 chat hosts running small business. A variety of topics are offered, but sex predominates.

Officials of WebPower did not return several telephone calls and e-mail messages seeking comment.

Many of the e-mail messages complaining about Yahoo were prompted by a campaign by a coalition of anti-pornography groups led by the American Family Association of Tupelo, Miss., according to Donna Rice Hughes, an anti-pornography advocate and member of the coalition. Yesterday, Ms. Hughes praised Yahoo's move.

"The good news is that after the backlash they received that they have chosen to reverse their decision to sell pornography," Ms. Hughes said. "But I would like to see them go further." She pointed home pages and chat rooms that have pornographic information.

Jeffery Douglas, the chairman of the Free Speech Coalition, the trade association of the pornography industry, called Yahoo's move an "overreaction."

"There is nothing illegal, wrong or fattening about purchasing routine adult material made for and by consenting adults," he said.

He said that the Internet was a particularly appropriate medium for the distribution of sexually related material as consumers risk neither offending nor being embarrassed by others who might otherwise observe, say, rentals of pornographic tapes in a local video store.

"The Internet allows people to explore their own sexuality and their own fantasies without hurting or intruding on anyone," he said.

Internet sites split on how they approach pornographic content and advertising. Some Web portals, including Excite and Lycos, accept ads from pornographic advertisers. MSN from Microsoft and America Online do not. But all of those sites, in various ways, even America Online, which promotes itself as being for families, offer a search engine with a directory listing thousands of pornographic Web sites. (Microsoft does not operate such a directory itself, but refers users who type in sexually related search to NightSurf, a sexual search engine operated by WebPower.)

The controversy came at a difficult time for Yahoo, which is reeling from a sharp decline in its advertising revenue. On Wednesday, the company announced its first quarterly loss in two years and said it would lay off 12 percent of its work force of 3,510.

For more information on Yahoo's decision, see these news articles:,1902,23692,00.html

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