Marissa Mayer–Hatred Still In Vogue At Yahoo–Part 2

In the prelude to this series, Twitter is Bad–Yahoo May Be Worse, I analyzed the problem of cyberharassment — especially of women and minorities — and offered some solutions, including rewriting the law that gives site owners bulletproof immunity. I also mentioned that Yahoo burns me more than Twitter because the presence of organized hate groups at static locations on Yahoo over a period of years requires the explicit cooperation of Yahoo management.

Then, in Marissa Mayer–Hatred Still In Vogue At Yahoo–Part 1, I suggested that Yahoo wants to use the spectacle of people trying to destroy each other’s lives as a circus attraction to draw eyeballs and sell ads. Flaming, doxxing, creepshots, and all kinds of misogyny and racial or religious hatred are not merely tolerated by some site owners, but welcomed as essential elements of their business plan. Online spectacle as cash cow.

Part 1 ended by pointing out that you can’t appeal to Yahoo’s sense of ethics because it’s missing in action. This remains true whether Yahoo’s CEO du jour is male or female. Their current CEO is Marissa Mayer, who came over from Google. Continuing on…

Former Secretary of State Madeline Albright once said that “there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” I personally have no problem with Marissa Mayer posing in Vogue or “having the time of [her] life,” (as the Vogue piece quotes her); but these things distract attention from what she hasn’t done: change Yahoo’s policy of coddling hate groups who harass women and minorities, change Yahoo’s policy of leeching off such free content and using it to draw eyeballs and run ads. Sure, we all want to see women break the glass ceiling, but not if it entails climbing aboard the Yahoo pimpmobile and strapping themselves into the driver’s seat.

There’s an old joke about a blind piano player in a house of ill-repute who claims he has no idea what goes on upstairs. The piano player is neither pimp nor madam, so perhaps his role is minimal. But Yahoo CEOs (and Yahoo lawyers like Anne Hoge, now with WhatsApp Inc.) have always known what’s going on, how Yahoo defends its right to use hate speech as free content, and defends its right to take no meaningful action when consumers claim to be victims of harassment on its service. Yahoo CEOs and lawyers are not like the blind piano player, but more like the pimps and madams who keep Yahoo’s garishly decorated house of ill-repute running day-to-day, determined to extract maximum per-click value from every bigot or misogynyist who sends out diseased messages of hate — or reads them.

The glass ceiling can be broken in two fundamentally different ways: Some women are invited to join the “boys’ club” and embrace policies which undergird the continued harassment of women and minorities. If they have feminine instincts of compassion and empathy, they’ve learned to stuff them in their back pockets while climbing the corporate ladder. Their arrival at the top therefore fails to signal any significant shift toward more woman-friendly policies for consumers. So it seems with Marissa Mayer at Yahoo.

By contrast, consider Ariel Zwang, the CEO of Safe Horizon, a successful nonprofit which is renowned for helping women who are victims of domestic violence. Without attempting to artificially impose gender roles, I would say that she’s a strong woman and role model who cares about the plight of women and minorities, and who didn’t have to sacrifice empathy and compassion in order to succeed. Rather, she’s turned those qualities into strengths and virtues at both a personal and corporate level.

Ironically, while Marissa Mayer was featured in Vogue, Ariel Zwang was one of four women who signed a letter of protest to Condé Nast over a Vogue cover showing model Stephanie Seymour being choked by model Marlon Teixeira. Choking chic, how fashionable! (They mercifully omitted the centerfold of Robert Chambers.)

The controversial Vogue cover cashing in on choking chic

The controversial Vogue cover cashing in on choking chic

A kittenish Marissa Mayer poses in Vogue. But are her ethics also upside-down?

A waxworks Marissa Mayer poses in Vogue. But are her ethics also upside-down?

All women deserve to live lives free from harassment and violence, but we have more natural admiration for women who won’t accept a top position with an ethically challenged firm like Yahoo unless they’re sure they can do something to change its unethical behavior.

This line of thought dovetails with something I posted a couple of months ago: Hina Shamsi on Now with Alex Wagner. Shamsi’s a lawyer with the ACLU who also teaches a course in international human rights at Columbia Law School. I’m impressed with her for many reasons, not least because she used her law degree in the service of human rights, rather than becoming a snaggletoothed enforcer for some sh*tty company like Yahoo a la Anne Hoge.

The world needs women of courage and integrity like Ariel Zwang and Hina Shamsi who care more about touching the world with hearts of compassion than whether or not they’re ever fêted by Vogue.

BTW, it’s funny how those trapped in the fashion bubble have no clue about Net life. Vogue heralds the changes Mayer made to Yahoo Mail as drawing positive reviews, when the truth is that Yahoo Mail users were furious. See Slate.com, Yahoo Mail Users Hate “Gorgeous” Redesign, Can’t Find the Print Button. It’s the same with Yahoo Groups. See TheRegister.co.uk, Ghastly! Yahoo! Groups! gripes! grip! grumpy! gremlin grumblers!

If you’ve followed my series on cyberharassment, you may have clicked on this piece by Lisa Guernsey: Mainstream Sites Serve As Portals To Hate. Ironically, Marissa Mayer has given Yahoo Groups a makeover she dubs “Neo,” without kicking out the neo-Nazis and other hate groups who’ve been routinely harassing women and minorities on Yahoo for years. Fortunately, Vogue got the really important stuff right:

“The day we had that conversation in her white, glossy, minimally appointed office in Sunnyvale, California, she was wearing a red Michael Kors dress with a gold belt and a brown Oscar de la Renta cardigan. This cashmere bolero is her work uniform–she has the same one in ivory, navy, black, hot pink, teal, red, and royal blue, and adds new colors every season.”

Honestly, it wouldn’t surprise me if even her phone is pimped out! (See The IT Crowd, S02E02.)

Vogue also boosts Mayer for getting props from Henry Blodget — but is the memory of fashion folk so short as to forget that Blodget was permanenently banned from the securities industry for pimping Internet stocks which he allegedly knew were dubious investments? See Securities and Exchange Commission v. Henry Blodget here.

The evidence mounts that Mayer’s an empty matador suit slinging the bull, not an agent for positive change. Though the Vogue piece joins her thematically with Bolero, her theme song should really be the Monty Python ditty about Sir Robin. From the longtime ethical challenges faced by Yahoo (and now Tumblr), Ms. Mayer has bravely, bravely run away. She’s yet another dubious investment touted by Wall Street bigs, who always manage to find a way of maintaining the status quo.

In Part 3 we’ll look more at Tumblr (which Marissa Mayer bought for Yahoo in mid-2013), and at the tortured euphemisms Mayer employs to avoid directly using the word “porn” when describing much of the traffic on Tumblr. We’ll also see some classic examples of the Tumblr brush-off response to women’s complaints of serious harassment.

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Marissa Mayer–Hatred Still In Vogue At Yahoo–Part 1

After seeing Amanda Hess talk about cyber-harassment on The Cycle, I posted Twitter is Bad–Yahoo May Be Worse. Today I’d like to continue that discussion.

Based on my experiences with Yahoo, I’m convinced they want to hang onto hateful content as a form of spectacle, like an online version of the Jerry Springer Show (where people throw chairs at each other), but more extreme. We often see this softcore/hardcore dichotomy between TV and the Internet. Cable TV provides softcore pr0n and softcore hate, while the Internet provides hardcore versions of these same commodities. (Again, see Lisa Guernsey, New York Times, Mainstream Sites Serve As Portals To Hate.)

At Jezebel.com, the call for horror stories has led to many being told — stories which resonate with me and corroborate my view that some site owners use the spectacle of people trying to destroy each other’s lives as a circus attraction to draw eyeballs and sell ads.

Flaming, doxxing, creepshots, and all kinds of misogyny and racial or religious hatred are not merely tolerated by some site owners, but welcomed as essential elements of their business plan. These are the “fight promoters” who provide the means and venue for the fight to take place, but are currently shielded from any legal liability for what happens in the ring. Such indemnity flies in the face of common law and common sense, since it fails to examine who profits from the deed and to assign blame proportionally. Internet fights are often many-against-one, with the one ending up psychologically maimed and sometimes even committing suicide.

The next time you see an example of online hatred or harassment, examine the page carefully with ad blocking off. Chances are you’ll see some type of company logo and/or advertising. I always think to myself, “This hate message brought to you by Yahoo…” Until such time as the laws can be changed, organizing economic boycotts of sites and advertisers who sponsor online hatred may be helpful.

The familiar paper-bag-over-head model means that some advertisers may be unaware they’re sponsoring hate speech, misogyny, doxxing, etc. One approach would be to screenshot hateful content that’s ad sponsored, then contact the advertiser and show them what their ad dollars are buying, what type of content their company is being associated with. Also cc the site owner. Changing the law will take time. Educating (or shaming) site owners and advertisers is an important interim startegy. We should ultimately try and remove the economic incentive to treat hate speech as desirable content, and instead create an economic disincentive.

Over at PandoDaily, Carmel DeAmicis implies that we should preserve full immunity for site owners, but merely appeal to their sense of ethics. I take a different view. Since 1996, we’ve experimented with giving site owners bulletproof immunity from lawsuits by victims of online harassment. What did that get us? Revenge pr0n sites where people (mostly men) upload embarrassing photos and videos of exes they now hate! If you’re analyzing the problem, you should draw a big red arrow between the so-called Communications Decency Act of 1996 and revenge pr0n. Read the case law and you’ll find that some judges regret having to let site owners off the hook for unbelievably negligent and hurtful actions (or failures to act), but their hands are tied by the law.

Read feminist law professor Ann Bartow’s scathing analysis of Cecilia Barnes v. Yahoo here. You can’t appeal to Yahoo’s sense of ethics because it’s apparently missing in action. This remains true whether Yahoo’s CEO du jour is male or female. Their current CEO is Marissa Mayer, who came over from Google.

In Part 2 of this series I’ll discuss Mayer’s successes (as a fashion plate) and failures (as an ethical model) in greater detail. The initial takeaway is that under Marissa Mayer, hatred is still “in vogue” at Yahoo. (Yes, ladies and gentlemen, we have title!)

Twitter is Bad–Yahoo May Be Worse

Today I saw Amanda Hess on MSNBC’s The Cycle talking about cyber-harassment. I decided to YouTube her short segment and blog about it here.

Many good people have written about the problem of cyber-harassment, including legal genius Danielle Citron. Her best-known magnum opus might be the impressive article Cyber Civil Rights. Her similarly themed “Civil Rights in Our Information Age” is included in the book The Offensive Internet. I add my voice below:

Follow the money and change the law. Section 230 of the so-called Communications Decency Act of 1996 is at the heart of the problem. It gives telecom companies bulletproof immunity from lawsuits by victims of online harassment, and requires the companies to do absolutely nothing! This is a case of regulatory capture. It would be possible to rewrite the law, finessing the language so that companies who profit by drawing eyeballs to hateful content may bear some liability under some circumstances (such as when they ignore repeated complaints from victims!). Once companies like Twitter and Yahoo face potential liability for online harassment, they’ll miraculously discover the resources and means to minimize such harassment. Free speech will not disappear from the Internet, but discussions will be more civil, which is sorely needed.

Today the Internet is (in practice) a public accommodation, but is not treated as such by law. Change the law so that virtual spaces where people congregate are subject to public accommodation law. Amend civil rights laws to explicitly outlaw harassment on the basis of gender, sexual preference, and religion. This is a women’s issue, but not exclusively so. Many minorities are routinely harassed on the Internet. Minority victims often don’t report incidents for fear that police may harbor the same prejudices as the harassers.

While law enforcement may have limited resources and can’t deal with every single harassing tweet, the Justice Dept. could make a few high profile sweeps of serial harassers, and draw media attention to arrests and convictions. It could send a clear message that if you violently threaten people online, you may be caught and punished.

Law enforcement needs to educate rank-and-file officers about cyber-harassment, and to send female officers to assist female victims whenever possible, as is often done with rape complaints. Likewise, where the victim is a member of a minority, the responding officer should ideally have received some sensitivity training in minority issues.

Early education is way behind the curve. In an increasingly diverse society where people also spend much of their time online, we need early education curricula which teach children good people skills, like how and why to value each person and treat them with respect and kindness, and the do’s and don’t’s of Internet behavior, including specific prohibitions against online stalking and harassment.

As Netizens, we also need to stop perpetuating the myth that the least smitch of regulation will cause free speech on the Internet to come to a screeching halt. The truth is that the Net consists of many neighborhoods — some more mainstream and respectable, others more marginal and reflecting a higher degree of illicit activity. All types of speech can be found somewhere on the Internet. This would continue to be true even if those U.S. companies now blaring explicit hate speech enjoyed less lavish legal immunity. It’s helpful to recognize that the CDA is itself a type of artificial regulation of the Internet which is corporation-friendly, consumer-hostile, and counterintuitive. In real life, people are responsible for acts of negligence, and for knowingly facilitating threats of violence, e.g. by holding the megaphone for the person making the threats.

What burns me is the “mainstreaming” of hate on Yahoo and Facebook. Yahoo in particular has been openly coddling hate groups and giving them a happy home for at least 15 years. See Lisa Guernsey, New York Times, Mainstream Sites Serve As Portals To Hate. See also feminist law professor Ann Bartow’s analysis of Barnes v. Yahoo here. (Why does Yahoo burn me more than Twitter? Because the presence of organized hate groups at static locations on Yahoo over a period of years requires the explicit cooperation of Yahoo management.)

As a fan of bad 50’s sci-fi, I’ve always loved the line in Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space that goes: “One thing’s for sure: Inspector Clay is dead, murdered, and somebody’s responsible!” On the Internet, people get “virtually murdered” every day, yet nobody’s responsible. Everybody’s wearing a paper bag over their head. Companies like Yahoo aggregate hate messages along with weather reports, stock quotes, celebrity gossip, cute pics of kittens with yarnballs, comic strips, and ads from Fortune 500 companies. The hateful and threatening content is delivered in an integrated format where it sits alongside mainstream content, sending the message that hate is something mainstream, something to be passively accepted, even embraced as a new form of entertainment. Is that who we are as a people? Is hate speech targeting women and minorities the latest fun entertainment craze, and is Yahoo cashing in with no sense of moral compunction? I would not hesitate to call Yahoo a bad corporate citizen.

One of the many problems with the so-called Communications Decency Act of 1996 is that it makes a naïve and simplistic distinction between ISPs and content providers. Despite delivering what certainly looks like content to the end user, Yahoo is not generally treated as a content provider, and therefore enjoys immunity for the complete, published pages it serves up from aggregated sources. With its recognized brand, Yahoo draws eyeballs to the content, and profits by selling ads. Yahoo knowingly provides a huge megaphone to hate groups, and is responsible for mainstreaming hateful content by aggregating it with familiar types of news and entertainment. Yahoo reaps the profits from this enterprise, but under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, Yahoo enjoys iron-clad immunity from lawsuits by the victims of hatred and harassment on its service. This injustice will only end when people care enough to make it end.

The money in politics is part of the problem, since the big telecom companies can afford to pay the politicians to write the law the way they want it written. As Netizens, we also bear some responsibility for stubbornly clinging to the position that any regulation whatsoever is bad. The Internet may once have been a weak child, but has grown into an incredibly strong, robust (if emotionally stunted) adult. Hateful and threatening content will always be available on the Internet; but with carefully crafted regulation, it will no longer be welcome on Yahoo and other mainstream services, and will no longer fit neatly into those companies’ business plans. It will no longer be desirable to Yahoo as free content to draw eyeballs and run ads, because of the potential liabilities.

Instead, people who want to publish (or read) hateful and threatening content will increasingly have to go to sites which specialize in such content. Just as pr0n is largely relegated to the pr0n ghettoes of the Internet, hateful and threatening content would be largely relegated to the hate ghettoes. Though not perfect, that’s a compromise which would represent a distinct improvement over the present situation, a “de-mainstreaming” of hate. What do you think?

Apart from revising Section 230 of the CDA, another type of action involves getting state and federal laws passed which criminalize revenge pr0n. Law professors Danielle Citron and Mary Anne Franks having been active and successful in this area. This is extremely helpful, but still leaves most types of harassment unaddressed. A strategic question is whether the piecemeal criminalization of known types of Internet harassment stands the best chance of protecting victims and achieving social change. This might be true if one sees little chance that Congress will ever revisit the problematic language of Section 230.

Still, it seems that no matter what form of Internet harassment people are subjected to (and there are many variations), Section 230 typically provides site owners with bulletproof immunity. Despite the progress in criminalizing revenge pr0n, I still think we need a long-term movement to rewrite Section 230 so that it no longer reflects naïve idealism and regulatory capture. I wonder which acts as a greater deterrent to shareholders of a company like Yahoo: the concern (perhaps minimal) that an employee might be found guilty of a misdemeanor, or the concern that the company might be held liable for civil damages. Am I wrong to think that the greater fear is payouts to consumers who were harmed by the company’s action, inaction, willful negligence, or deceptive terms of service? If so, revising Section 230 may provide a stronger deterrent than enacting revenge pr0n laws.

The other problem with a piecemeal approach is that even among oppressed groups, some are more powerful than others and more able to rally political support for legislation crafted to protect their interests. The danger, then, with piecemeal legislation is that we could end up with a collection of sacred cows, while the sheep are still left to the wolves. Revising Section 230 is, in theory, a more equalitarian solution which would help a wider range of victims, including religious and ethnic minorities.