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June 23, 2005

Killing Of Chat Rooms By Yahoo Called 'Overreaction'

Courtesy of InternetWeek

Yahoo Inc.'s decision to pull the plug on perhaps hundreds of chat rooms following reports that some of them were used to promote sex with minors was an "overreaction" by the entertainment portal, privacy advocates said Thursday.

Yahoo shutdown the chat rooms following complaints from sponsors such as PepsiCo Inc., State Farm Insurance and Georgia-Pacific Corp., The Associated Press reported Thursday. The sponsors were upset over a report by KPRC-TV in Houston that adults in some of the chat rooms were trying to lure children into the virtual meeting places.

Rather than shutdown user-created chat rooms in mass, Yahoo, based in Sunnyvale, Calif., should have targeted only those involved in the illicit behavior, said the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a free speech and privacy advocate in San Francisco.

"This is a real overreaction on the part of Yahoo," Annalee Newitz, policy analyst for the EFF, said. "To just unilaterally shut down chat rooms is really chilling to free speech."

Unless the chat room was obviously involved in illicit behavior, Yahoo should have provided some means for innocent chat room organizers to explain their activities and remain operating.

"Yahoo promises its customers that they can speak freely with each other, and then at the whim of advertisers, shut everything down," Newitz said. "There's no due process, and seemingly no rhyme or reason. There's just this overreaction on the part of Yahoo to please its advertisers."

Yahoo declined to discuss its decision to shut down all its user-created chat rooms, issuing instead a statement that said, "We are working on improvements in the service to enhance the user experience in compliance with our terms of service." No date had been set as to when Yahoo would resume the chat-room service, a spokeswoman said.

According to the AP story, KPRC-TV reported that in some cases, lewd pictures were being sent to minors in chat rooms with such titles as "Younger Girls 4 Older Guys," and "Girls 13 And Under For Older Guys."

Yahoo does not monitor the content of its chat rooms, but will shut down those that are found through complaints to violate the company's policies, the AP said. Yahoo requires users to agree not to "harm minors in any way" or to distribute content that is "unlawful, harmful, threatening, abusive, harassing, tortuous, defamatory, vulgar, obscene, libelous, ... or otherwise objectionable."

Current law protects Internet service providers, such as Earthlink and America Online, from illegal activity on their networks, because it would be unreasonable to expect them to monitor all the traffic. Nevertheless, illicit activity brought to the attention of ISPs must be reported to law enforcement.

With chat rooms, however, the service provider's liability would depend on whether it monitors them as a stated company policy, Newitz said. Illicit activity, however, would have to be reported, if brought to the service provider's attention.

In April, a 19-year-old Los Angeles woman sued AOL, claiming a former monitor of a "kids only" chat room persuaded her to send him nude photos of herself when she was a teenager and to engage in phone sex. The suit filed in Los Angeles Superior Court is pending.

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