By Jason Collum | Journal Staff Writer

An entrance to the World Wide Web is a good way to describe Yahoo, being that it is a portal site and the definition of portal is “entrance.”

In the last two years, though, Yahoo has been embroiled in controversy as, through its member groups, the Web site has been shown to be a major portal to child pornography on the Internet.

Yahoo has been the focus of pressure from the American Family Association to clean up its act and get rid of child pornography being stored on its servers and traded through its E-groups. In October 2002, AFA mailed a 53,000-signature petition to U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft asking that his department investigate Yahoo and other Internet portals for their complicity in the growth of child pornography on the Internet.

A case stemming from a worldwide child pornography sting called Operation Candyman was expected to raise new questions as to the role Internet companies play in the distribution of child pornography. A guilty plea however, dashed those expectations. Jimmy Todd, a mid-level manager at the U.S. Department of Agriculture office in Fort Worth, Texas, pleaded guilty (without a plea agreement) to keeping on government property 27 photographs and two videos depicting minors in sexual acts and poses. Prosecutors said he obtained the material through members of a Yahoo E-group, and Todd himself was a member of a Yahoo E-group.

According to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Todd’s defense attorney, Earl Waddell, questioned why Yahoo was not investigated and also charged. “The government says these images were downloaded through Yahoo user groups,” Waddell was quoted as saying. “You can do a search under Yahoo!Groups, and Yahoo will give you a list of the names of their porn user groups. The names are very explicit. There are even sites that feature nude babies. What is the rationale for allowing Yahoo to be the source for this type of trash?”

A Yahoo spokeswoman rejected the criticism. She told the Star-Telegram: “Yahoo has a strong track record of enforcing our terms of service and is committed to taking swift and appropriate action when notified of cases of abuse.”
However, according to one Web filtering company, Yahoo’s actions aren’t as genuine as they would have some believe. Simmone Jordan, of BSafe Online, said that in past cases when Yahoo has received complaints about groups or sites with obscene photographs or other material, Yahoo’s action has been anything but appropriate.

“Usually, if they are asked to remove a Web site that they’re getting pretty good usage from, they change [the site address] by one letter,” Jordan said. The reason Yahoo keeps up sites with higher traffic, regardless of the content, is that they generate revenue for the company through advertising sales.

Jordan said while Yahoo has gotten rid of some child pornography groups, other questionable groups remain.
“They have a lot of child model groups,” Jordan said, “where, for example, there will be a nine-year-old dressing provocatively, wearing a wet T-shirt or a child in a bra and shorts with her legs wide open, things like that. And all you have to do is search for ‘child pictures.’ The first one that came up was a nine-year-old’s modeling site.”

Porn portal
So how is Yahoo a portal to not only the Internet but also pornography? In much the same way Yahoo’s search engine acts as a portal, or entry to the Web, Yahoo’s user groups serve as an entry for virtually anyone to find and trade any kind of pornography.

For those who aren’t Internet savvy, a very simple way to think about it would be to think of the Web as an ant hill.
An ant hill has one entry which leads to a myriad of tunnels, which in turn lead to various chambers. Likewise, the Web (the ant hill) has literally millions of tunnels and chambers (Web sites). With so many tunnels and chambers, many people use road maps, or portals, to find their way around. Yahoo is one of those portals.

Yahoo is not only a powerful search engine for helping people find sites on the Web, but it is also a site that offers a host of services for people to take advantage of while they are there. Yahoo also offers Web-based e-mail, news and sports information, games, shopping and many other features.

Some Yahoo services, though, have been proved in the past to be a problem. Yahoo hosts chat rooms and user groups that allow people to talk to millions of other people from around the world and trade files. That in its most innocent form isn’t the problem, though. Where trouble arises is when people uses Yahoo services, such as chat, to lure others into adulterous affairs or sexual trysts. Too many times, these sexual rendezvous involve adults enticing minors to meet for illegal sexual activity.

One of the most highly profiled cases involving Yahoo user groups was Operation Candyman. The child pornography sting was run by the FBI’s Child Exploitation Task Force and took place between 2001 and 2002. In the probe, authorities learned the names of more than 7,000 computer users who traded child porn in the United States and overseas on a Yahoo E-group called Candyman.

What to do?

AFA executive assistant Buddy Smith said AFA’s efforts to get the Justice Department to act have, for the most part, ground to a halt as Justice has taken no action on AFA’s petition.

“We have pretty strong obscenity statutes in this country, and clearly Yahoo is in violation of them,” Smith said. “Why Justice is giving Yahoo a free ride, we don’t know.”

At a White House meeting in October 2002, President George Bush told law enforcement officials and other invited guests – including a representative of Yahoo – that he was committed to prosecuting child exploitation on the Internet. Ashcroft has suggested his office would also pursue such matters as well. However, as the country prepares for war with Iraq and watches for domestic terrorism, both understandably high priorities, Smith says the government should not relinquish its other duties.

“Preventing terrorism is extremely important, but at the same time Justice and others can’t ignore their duties when it comes to clamping down on child pornography,” Smith said.

AFA urges concerned citizens to contact the Justice Department and insist on action. The address, phone number and E-mail address are:
John Ashcroft, Attorney General
U.S. Department of Justice
950 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20530-0001
Phone: 202-353-1555