Yahoo changes tack, to monitor hateful content

Responds to public pressure, French court ruling

By Lisa Guernsey
The New York Times,
January 4, 2021

NEW YORK - After months of pressure from human rights groups like the Simon Wiesenthal Center, Yahoo! Inc. said it would try more actively to keep hateful and violent material out of its auctions, classified sections and shopping areas.

The program, which will employ human reviewers and software, signals a shift in Yahoo's approach. Previously, the company did not actively monitor what was posted on its site, and it removed material that was deemed inappropriate or in violation of its policies only after such a posting was brought to its attention by users or watchdog groups.

"We are being more proactive on the Yahoo side to really stamp out anything in violation," said Brian Fitzgerald, senior producer for Yahoo Auctions.

The monitoring program, which takes effect next Wednesday, uses software that automatically reviews information that sellers are trying to post on the Yahoo Web site. If the software detects something in the submission that appears to violate the company's standards, the seller will immediately receive a message with links to Yahoo's terms of service. The seller can then revise the listing or appeal to Yahoo's staff for human review.

The policy change comes six weeks after a French court ordered Yahoo to pay fines of about US$13,000 a day if it did not install technology that would shield French users from seeing Nazi-related memorabilia on its auction site. French law prohibits the display of such material, and e-commerce experts in the United States have expressed concern over whether the case might set a precedent requiring U.S. Internet firms to comply with foreign laws.

After the ruling, Yahoo asked a federal U.S. court to declare the French ruling out of bounds jurisdictionally and in violation of the First Amendment.

Yahoo officials said the monitoring policy was not a response to the French ruling. Rather, they said, the company was responding to users who had requested a more active policy and to groups like the Wiesenthal Center and the Anti-Defamation League, which have been in talks with Yahoo throughout the year.

A month ago, Yahoo's auction site listed more than 1,000 items related to the Ku Klux Klan or Nazism, including knives, robes and daggers.

Greg Wrenn, associate general counsel for Yahoo's international division, added, however, that the monitoring program might have some bearing on Yahoo's case with the French court. "I would hope that it would show to them that we have thought about these issues in good faith," he said.

Eay has experienced similar public pressure. It decided last spring to prohibit the sale of Nazi or Klan items that are less than 50 years old, a policy that leaves room for the sale of historical items.

Yahoo's new policy applies only to its commerce areas. Yahoo's online clubs ad home pages, which have also come under fire, will not be subject to the monitoring program. "There we want to promote inclusiveness," Mr. Wrenn said. "We don't want Yahoo deciding who can or cannot speak in public debates."

Rabbi Abraham Cooper, an associate dean of the Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, called the policy "an important step forward, if it works." He added, however: "If it turns out to be effective on the commerce stage, we'd like them to apply the same tripwire" to online clubs.

Yahoo also announced that, as of next Wednesday, it will require sellers to pay a fee for listing an auction item; the fee will range from US20ยข to US$2.25, depending on the value of the item and its reserve price, if it has one. It does not charge a closing fee or take a percentage of final sales.