Web Portals In the Porn Business Overseas

July 7, 2008 - 8:03 PM

(CNSNews.com) - Criticism from anti-pornography activists has forced Yahoo, MSN, and Terra Lycos to tone down their pornographic advertising and content, but that has not deterred them from offering such content on their European websites.

Searches on Yahoo's German, Norwegian, French, and Italian web portals will turn up risque advertisements featuring naked women. Similar content showed up on Yahoo's American site until anti-pornography groups such as the American Family Association (AFA) and Focus on the Family began a campaign against the web portals' sexually explicit clubs, forums, and advertisements.

"Where Internet companies have gone in terms of pornography is that they are watching market response, and are pushing the envelope as much as they [can] get away with," said Focus on the Family Internet Research Analyst Steve Watters. "I was a little surprised that they decided to go back at all here in the United States, because they have heard so little [from their consumers], but... press releases and coverage from some conservative groups did result in... their scaling back to some degree."

Watters believes a near lawlessness exists on the Internet that has left web companies in a position to sponsor just about anything for which consumers ask, without respect to the moral consequences.

"With the dollars running short in the Internet industry, they are looking for whatever they can take advantage of, and they are going as far as they can without getting their hands slapped," Watters said.

While Yahoo has toned down some of the racy content on its American website since April 2001, it has not totally eliminated materials that foes of pornography find objectionable, according to AFA spokesman Pat Trueman.

"You can no longer simply put in Lolita (which Trueman says is a code word for child porn) or rape and come up with something," Trueman said. "I have put out release after release about Yahoo's rape clubs, and they even have a rape directory about people that are interested in that subject."

Yahoo continues to offer rape and child pornography clubs on its American website although it has made them harder to find, according to Trueman. He also said Yahoo has not implemented the same rules on their European websites.

Trueman equates Yahoo, MSN, and Terra Lycos' sponsorship of pornography on their European websites with an individual that launders money destined for the U.S through a foreign bank.

The American Family Association and Focus on the Family fault former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno for allowing the proliferation of online pornography during the 1990s, and the web portals' permissive attitude toward pornography.

"There have been no prosecutions for [obscenity in] eight years," Trueman said. "If you don't prosecute obscenity, which they didn't do in the Clinton administration, then you make a lot of major porn distributors very wealthy."

Trueman believes the Justice Department could prosecute Yahoo, MSN, and Terra Lycos for providing pornographic material overseas that finds its way back into the U.S. via the Internet.

"I think on obscenity, you could still prosecute Yahoo and MSN for that sort of thing," Trueman said. "The U.S. would have the jurisdiction to prosecute Yahoo because it's an American company and because it's distributing [pornography] right here in America."

He believes the fact that pornographic material is found on their European servers could complicate matters, but not completely immunize Yahoo, MSN, and Terra Lycos from an obscenity prosecution.

Trueman and Watters believe a Justice Department decision to enforce obscenity laws against these corporations would curb their ability to distribute Internet pornography overseas.

Yahoo, however, asserts that its American division lacks authority over the web portal's foreign divisions.

"Our general managers of our properties have to make decisions that are culturally sensitive to them, so they make pragmatic decisions that are appropriate to them," said Yahoo Manager of International Public Relations Scott Morris. "They are marketing their services, and their Yahoo brands to the local populations."

Yahoo considers it inappropriate to dictate American or Chinese values to its divisions operating in Europe and elsewhere around the world, Morris said.

"In China the government owns the means of media and communication and they have very strict laws about what can be published and what can be said," Morris said. "I don't think it would be appropriate to take Chinese law and apply it to U.S. content.

"I don't think you would want your news on CNN to be restricted because of Chinese law," he said.

Morris said forcing American morality on Europeans or others outside the U.S. is a slippery slope.

"We just can't cater to the lowest common denominator," Morris said. "Around the world, you have to cater to different audiences and different tastes, and that is how we have built our business."

A Microsoft spokeswoman, who insisted on anonymity, echoed Yahoo's rationale for sponsoring pornography on its French website.

"[MSN] reaches more than 270 [million] consumers worldwide [and] it is important that MSN take into account local standards, culture, and consumer interests in our 34 international sites -- of course, working within the regulations and customs of each local country," the Microsoft spokeswoman said. "MSN takes an editorial approach based on what is acceptable and in demand from a local standpoint.

"In the case of MSN France, MSN is offering links to adult content sites based on expressed user interest in France in those sites," she said. "The content is very similar to that offered on public television programming in France."

Terra Lycos could not be reached for comment.