Yahoo Sites Ban Nazi, KKK Items

Yahoo's software for filtering out hate group products on its commerce sites is not foolproof, but a Yahoo executive believes it is a good start.

The portal's monitoring program, a combination of using “proprietary” software and having employees weed out objectionable products, is a “very solid process that will improve over time,” said Brian Fitzgerald, senior producer at Yahoo Auctions.

“We're not going to catch everything at the moment of them trying to list, but we've got a group of dedicated people whose entire job is dealing with people and proactive monitoring,” Fitzgerald said.

Yahoo banned Nazi and Ku Klux Klan merchandise from its U.S. commerce sites (Yahoo Auctions, Travel, Shopping, Store and Finance) this month, two months after a French court ruled that it must filter those products from Yahoo's French users.

The French court will charge Yahoo $14,000 if those products are not filtered out starting Feb. 20.

However, Yahoo claims its decision to ban the merchandise is not directly linked to the French case, which Yahoo is asking a federal court in California to overturn. The French law should not apply to the company, Yahoo said.

“The issue is something we've grappled with for a long time, but our decision is definitely independent of what's come down in that case,” Fitzgerald said. In fact, Yahoo is not directly complying with the court ruling, Fitzgerald said, because it is blocking all hate group items, not just blocking certain content from French users.

“We did not want to deal with businesses that are profiting from these types of items,” Fitzgerald said.

However, select Nazi-related items are still being sold, and critics point out that Yahoo's monitoring system will not catch every prohibited item, which could range from pirated software to weapons.

Some KKK items were still listed on its online auctions earlier this month.

And stamps, coins and bank notes issued by the government of Nazi Germany are still permitted, along with Adolf Hitler's “Mein Kampf,” which Yahoo considers an educational resource.

“What was important to us was to keep books, films, etc., where people would be educated about things that happened in the past,” Fitzgerald said.

The ban was “a very difficult decision” for Yahoo executives because of free speech issues, Fitzgerald said. Yahoo does not prohibit speech about or by hate groups on its message boards and chat rooms.

“Freedom of speech rules tend to apply to those areas more,” Fitzgerald said.

Yahoo also is facing larger issues, such as its falling stock price and decreased ad spending by dot-coms.

However, at least one analyst believes Yahoo will quickly rebound. “This year is kind of a transition year for Yahoo,” said Safa Rashtchy, senior analyst at U.S. Bancorp Piper Jaffrey in Minneapolis. “By the second quarter we will have a pretty good view of developments, such as how fast are traditional advertisers replacing dot-coms.”

The French legal case should not affect Yahoo's standing with investors, Rashtchy added. “They might run into problems with civil liberties groups [over free speech],” he said. “It's a headache, but not a major problem.”

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