20
Sep
11

Yahoo: Did A Second-Rate Search Company Resort To Third-World Censorship Tactics?

[UPDATE: Roughly two hours after this post went up, @YahooCare announced an apology for the misconfiguration of the spam filter in Yahoo! Mail.]

What exactly does Yahoo! think it’s doing by apparently filtering its Yahoo! Mail service to prevent the sending of links to the protest website occupywallst.org?

As the multi-day protester occupation of Wall Street unfolded, watching today’s developments on the Twitter hashtag #occupywallstreet brought many things to light. We saw video of police dragging, kneeling on and cuffing peaceful protesters, of police confiscating tarps protecting video and electronic gear from the rain (prompting me to write this joke in the morning and to watch it be lifted and repurposed w/o attribution by beat-biters around the world. You’re welcome, guys.)

Then a disturbing screencast video caught my eye, wherein a Yahoo! Mail user showed an apparent instance of Yahoo! preventing his sending an email containing the string occupywallst.org. This was presented as evidence of anti-protest censorship on Yahoo’s part and Twitter people took it as prima facie evidence of concerted corporate censorship aimed at protecting the financial class’s status quo.

I wasn’t so sure. As a software tester and technical writer, I spotted that the video had a flaw in its methodology. I felt it was possible that the URL in question was triggering a spam filter in a general way, because the text in the guy’s message that was stopped read “[…] go here: occupywallst.org” while the next message’s text was constructed using some linefeeds (meaining the new URL was off by itself on its own line and might therefore not trigger a spam filter.)

So I decided to try my own experiment at how Yahoo! Mail handled the string occupywallst.org. I made my own screencast video of it. And I found that Yahoo! Mail prevented my sending of mail containing that string alone while passing other mail with other lone URLs. In my experiment, Yahoo! Mail treated as spam only the message containing occupywallst.org.  I was being effectively censored from sending such an email through Yahoo! Mail.

My testing method still isn’t technically complete. But it did remove variables from the test I saw earlier, and I think at this point, it’s on Yahoo! to explain how or why the string occupywallst.org has ended up in its spam (or any other) filter.

There is a big irony in the bigger picture: Given the Yahoo! board’s legendary mistake in declining Microsoft’s 2008 buyout offer, you might guess the company would welcome instead of hinder any protest-related interruptions in trading at NASDAQ in the hope of temporarily arresting its plummeting share price.

Apparently they’re just not devious enough for a plan like that.

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