The New York Times
April 14, 2001
After Complaints, Yahoo to Close Access to Pornographic Sites
By SAUL HANSELL
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
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
"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.
Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company
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