Social Responsibility on the Net: DMOZ Declines

AOL-owned DMOZ (the “Open Directory Project”) is a large human-edited directory of websites which purports to list only the best of the web – those quality sites which add value to the internet. Given this stated goal and the fact that DMOZ editors reject more sites than they list, I have previously argued that it is not unreasonable for people to assume that those listed are “better” in various ways than those not selected for listing. This in turn creates a situation where DMOZ is assumed to be selectively endorsing and promoting those sites that are included in the directory.

In recent months, a series of heated threads at DigitalPoint forums has pointed out numerous examples of sites listed in the directory which promote pro-pedophilia, pro-anorexia, pro-self-injury, and even pro-suicide viewpoints, as well as others of dubious “quality” by any definition of that word (warning: some of these threads contain salty language and the site descriptions are not for the faint of heart or weak of stomach):

DMOZ Supports Child Porn?

Real teens and more child porn

DMOZ/ODP Adult is still promoting pro-pedophilia sites

DMOZ and Extreme Pornography

Why are DMOZ editors supporting Adult guidelines?

More fun with DMOZ

DMOZ cleanup: Next phase (pro-anorexia, pro-self-injury)

One of the disturbing things you will observe in these discussions is the number of DMOZ editors who defend their editorial practices on the grounds of “free speech”, or, even more pathetically, on the grounds that the sites listed are in compliance with DMOZ guidelines for editors and that therefore the listings should remain.

The argument to retain listings because they meet existing guidelines is too stupid to warrant serious debate – if something is wrong, you don’t hide behind “guidelines”, you change them.

Many DMOZ editors have defended listing sites like those highlighted in the threads on the grounds that the activities are not illegal. What I have repeatedly argued is that legality is but a small part of the issue – the greater issue is social responsibility. For reasons that escape me, many of the editors participating in the debates cannot seem to understand how social responsibility has anything to do with what they are doing. Indeed, most editors who have commented have vigorously rejected the concept of social responsibility as having any bearing at all on what they do.

The general “free speech” argument worries me because it is the sort of argument that raises the flag of defense of democracy but ignores the principle of responsibility and the limits to free speech that are inherent in any democracy. Free speech is not a license for inciting hatred or promoting activities that are criminal or harmful to children and other vulnerable members of the community. Free speech is not a mechanism for avoiding responsibility for one’s actions through either word or deed. And a basic principle of any democracy is that the right to free speech ends where it begins to trample on the basic human rights of or to harm others in the community.

Finally, what DMOZ editors have argued repeatedly is that public discussions of DMOZ practices is not helpful, that anyone who has a problem with what they do should either be submitting complaints to the “abuse reporting” system in DMOZ or should be joining the organization and working to change things from within.

Now, since these debates began several months ago now, there have been some changes in DMOZ guidelines and some of the offensive sites have been removed from the directory. The pace with which this has occurred has been appallingly slow, however, and there seems to be growing resistance to expanding the focus of attention.

All of this has strengthened my belief that left to its own devices DMOZ has no interest in change – to the contrary, the main thrust of the DMOZ hierarchy is to preserve the status quo. Any changes that have occurred to date have been the direct result of public pressure, a fact that is of course vehemently denied (against all logic) by many editors.

Now there is a new “Gathering Storm” to worry DMOZ and it comes in the form of legislators concerned for the moment with internet child pornography and “chat rooms” in which child predators gather to locate new victims – some of these sites were the initial focus of the threads listed above, which led to the de-listing of several pro-pedophilia sites.

Lawmakers to tackle online child porn
By ERICA WERNER, Associated Press
Tue Jun 27, 2006

WASHINGTON – Internet providers told Congress on Tuesday they’re doing all they can to combat online child pornography, but they were told to expect legislation.

Several voiced skepticism about creating new laws that would force them to retain data about their users’ online activity. Any such measure would be costly and easily circumvented and would “fall far short of its intended goal,” America Online chief counsel John Ryan told a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing. The focus should be on improving existing child porn laws — not “new mandates,” said Verizon Online general counsel Thomas Dailey.

Lawmakers, however, said more must be done to stop the availability of child porn on the Web and chart rooms where pedophiles troll for young victims.

“The parents of America and I think the Congress is tired of just talking about it. I think we’re ready to take action,” Energy and Commerce Chairman Joe Barton, R-Texas, told a panel of executives from seven companies including Yahoo Inc., Google Inc., and Microsoft Corp. Barton said that after hearings by his committee’s investigative subcommittee wrap up Wednesday he plans to develop a comprehensive anti-porn bill. He didn’t offer details, but getting companies to maintain customer records was a focus Tuesday.

Companies already are adjusting their practices in response to the attention from Congress and the Justice Department. Five companies – Time Warner Inc.’s AOL, Yahoo, Microsoft, Earthlink and United Online Inc. – announced Tuesday they will jointly build a database of child-pornography images and develop other tools to help prevent distribution of the images. The companies pledged $1 million and will work with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

Google came under the most criticism Tuesday, with lawmakers brandishing printouts of a search using the terms “pre-teen,” “sex” and “video” that yielded 2.9 million hits on the massive search site. Nicole Wong, Google’s associate general counsel and chief privacy officer, said that search was an aberration based on the company’s failure to flag the word “pre-teen” when it’s hyphenated, but that it’s been corrected. She said the company’s policy was to block access to child porn sites as soon as they’re detected. “We do the best we can,” Wong said.

Corporate America does not have a stellar record in the realm of social responsibility and it is generally the force of overwhelming public pressure leading to legislation that has compelled most large organizations to act more responsibly. It would appear that the same is true for the internet in general – and definitely for DMOZ.

Clearly, the public patience is wearing thin. The message to those who have influence on the net should by now be clear: Clean up your act or perish. Accept some social responsibility or have it mandated by legislation. As pressure grows on AOL (and Google who recently purchased a 5% share in AOL, the parent company for Netscape and DMOZ), it’s only a matter of time before that pressure is applied directly to DMOZ too.

What does not evolve faces extinction.

ODP, DMOZ, Open Directory Project, AOL, Google, child pornography, pro-pedophilia chat rooms, pro-anorexia, pro-self-injury, social responsibility

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2 Comments

  1. This is very interesting, scary in away. Thank you for the article it is very well researched.
    “Clearly, the public patience is wearing thin. The message to those who have influence on the net should by now be clear: Clean up your act or perish. Accept some social responsibility or have it mandated by legislation. As pressure grows on AOL (and Google who recently purchased a 5% share in AOL, the parent company for Netscape and DMOZ), it’s only a matter of time before that pressure is applied directly to DMOZ too.” I would agree with your conclusions with respect to the public patience on this issue!

  2. DMOZ has been a bastion of corruption for some years now. I have one site in there which was added 6 years ago, but since that time it seems to me that all or most of the editors are a bunch of mobsters.

    DMOZ should have evolved into a cheaper version of the Y! directory, IMO. Pay $50 or so and your site gets added forever. Spammers don’t like to pay for anything, so even $20 per site would be enough to keep the place clean.

    As always, IMO.

    AmCy

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