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Ethics of online communities

by Giles Turnbull -- 2000/11/17

You run a popular web portal that includes chat facilities. A paedophile is convicted of raping a child he met in one of your chatrooms. The police and child protection groups ask you to take action. It's happened to Yahoo. What would you do?

Yahoo UK's marketing and public relations department are reluctant to discuss the matter with ZDNet's reporter, but the company will need to keep a careful eye on its reputation.

The British tabloids are particularly sensitive to coverage of paedophiles and could do Yahoo considerable damage if they ran a similar story.

Yahoo, meanwhile, has to keep another eye on the internet community with which it has developed quite a good relationship over the years. Any attempts by the company to control or monitor chat would be denounced as censorship, a big no-no for most net users.

It's something of a rock-and-hard-place situation. And raises the question: what would you do? If your web site is relatively new, or is about to embark on a strategy of building real-time community elements, it's a subject you will need to think carefully about, and plan for.

The real-time aspect is a crucial one here. According to ZDNet's article, Yahoo will only consider removing content that is found to be illegal. Chat environments are real-time. There is no way of "removing content" after the event - what's said is said.

Policing chat rooms means exactly that - paying someone to monitor each and every one of them. And Yahoo, no matter how well it is performing compared to some of its corporate peers, cannot afford to do that just yet. Even if it wanted to.