Yahoo Didn't Mean To Censor Emails—It Meant Worse

What's to come?
Sept. 22 2011 1:46 PM

Small Dictators, Big Bots

Yahoo didn't mean to censor emails about Wall Street protests. The truth is much more insidious.

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This article arises from Future Tense,a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate.

Wall Street protests. Click image to expand.
It turns out Silicon Valley wasn't protecting Wall Street

When I tried to use my Yahoo account Tuesday to send an email mentioning the website OccupyWallSt.org, an ominous, bright yellow notice warned me that the "message was not sent" and "my account was temporarily blocked." I tried other URLs, including "ilovewallstreet.org," which zipped along unmolested. It seemed that Yahoo was only blocking messages mentioning the URL OccupyWallSt.org.

"Censorship! Silicon Valley protecting Wall Street," cried indignant people on my Twitter timeline. The uproar caught the attention of blogs like ThinkProgress. Finally, Silicon Valley was caught with its fingers in the Wall Street cookie jar! Silicon police state!

My tweeps are wrong. The problem isn't censorship; it's much worse. A myopic business model is threatening the health of the Internet. Ironically, it's not even that good for business.

In truth, Yahoo probably isn't out to block this or that political URL (the red-faced company quickly apologized). Wall Street is part of the problem—not because it imposes content censorship, but rather because it imposes a certain financial logic based more on cutting costs in the very short term as opposed to making money in the mid- to long-term.

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Ads on the Web are not very effective. It's easy to block or ignore most of them. Unfortunately for Internet businesses, advertisers know this and do not pay as much for Web ads. Coupled with the "Sooo, what're yer numbers this quarter?" method of penny-wise, pound-foolish economics imposed by Wall Street, most Web businesses have turned to "cut costs to the bone" model. And that means fewer human employees, more automation, more algorithmic rigidity, less judgment, less flexibility, and slower response times.

We are ruled, in effect, by small dictators and big bots. And this unelected, inefficient, and sometimes-petty tyranny is throttling the growth of a vibrant, healthy Internet and fuels many problems ranging from inane "real name" policies on sites like Google+—where people can be asked for official proof of identity if their account is flagged as a nickname—to major disruptions in connectivity. This is terrible because the Internet is not just any widget—it's increasingly the heart of our networked commons. Dominance of a bad business model on the Internet doesn't just result in bad products; it results in unhealthy social dynamics.

Take the Yahoo hiccup: What likely happened was that the offending URL, https://occupywallst.org, was added to a spam filter master file. (Maybe this was a politically motivated act. More likely, was just random error. In either case, it demonstrates the problem.) Most platforms rely on centralized huge databases of spam originators that are heavily automated and run by very small numbers of actual people. A long time can pass before an error is caught and a human is tasked to intervene and recalibrate the system.

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