Celebrating 20 Years of AOL Annoyances and Foul-Ups

Perhaps more of interest to those who lived through it than those who arrived on the tail end, this is a fascinating and sometimes frustrating look back on infamous moments in AOL history.

The one thing not mentioned in the article is AOL’s link to the ironically self-titled Open Directory Project aka DMOZ, an once noble if hopelessly overoptimistic project whose recent history is as infamous as that of its owners.

20 Years of AOL Annoyances and Foul-Ups
by Harry McCracken, Technologizer, PCWorld
Apr 28, 2009

AOL floppies and CDs. Sharon Stone’s fling with the Running Man icon. The death of Netscape. It’s all part of AOL history we’d like to forget.

Read the PCWorld article here.

Discussion continues here.

DMOZ reaches a new low

Compostannie, one of the most hard-working, most honest, and most principled of the mixed bag of DMOZ editors and arguably one of the best ambassadors DMOZ ever had, has been removed by the scurrilous crew that makes up the DMOZ inner sanctum.

Debates over the cowardly and shameful way this was done are currently raging both in a DigitalPoint thread titled Dmoz Scandal of the Year and within the “secret” internal DMOZ forums, much of which is reposted in the DigitalPoint thread, much to the chagrin of those who engineered or are rushing to support this miscarriage of justice.

read more | digg story

abuse, bullying, directories, DMOZ, scandal

Mandated Social Responsibility on the Net

I have previously written of the appalling lack of social responsibility at prominent websites such as the Open Directory Project (ODP or DMOZ) (see Social Responsibility on the Net: DMOZ DeclinesDMOZ and web sites promoting anorexia and self-injury, DMOZ still promoting pro-anorexia, pro-self-injury sites, AOL-owned DMOZ Directory promotes child pornography?, and DMOZ still listing pro-pedophilia sites). I previously commented:

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.

Today, I see this article from the BBC:

Call to ban pro-suicide websites
Saturday, 9 September 2006
BBC News

The government should make it illegal for internet sites to incite or advise people on how to commit suicide, a charity says.

Papyrus, set up to tackle young suicide, said the risk posed by pro-suicide websites was not being taken seriously enough.

The charity said the 1961 Suicide Act should be amended to make it illegal to publish such material on the web.

The government said it was looking at how rules could be tightened.

At the moment, the law says it is illegal to aid, abet, counsel, procure or incite someone to commit suicide, but to be successfully prosecuted the individual has to have knowledge and participated in the suicide.

The charity said it was aware of nearly 20 internet-related suicides cases in the UK in the last five years.

Papyrus said typing “I want to kill myself” into an internet search engine offers access to 5m sites, many of which give information on how to commit suicide or were chat-rooms where techniques are discussed.

A spokeswoman added: “The sites take no responsibility for the advice they give, do not identify themselves and generally create an atmosphere where suicide is normal, acceptable and to be encouraged.

“The fact is that it is illegal to groom a child to have sex, but not to kill themselves.”

The charity said as well as changing the law, the Department of Health’s National Suicide Strategy needed to be amended to include reference to the dangers of the internet.

It also wants to see computer manufacturers and retailers include leaflets the charity has produced warning of the dangers of the internet when they sell products.

The Home Office said it was considering whether the 1961 Act could be changed to take internet sites into account.

But a spokesman said: “It is a very complex issue, as many of these sites are hosted abroad and UK law won’t apply there.”

And the Department of Health said it was looking at other ways of addressing the problem.

“We share the public’s concern about these websites and the influence they can have over vulnerable people, particularly young people.

“Ministers are working closely with the Samaritans and the Internet Service Providers Association to look at ways of supporting vulnerable people who may be accessing these sites.”

‘Web helped son kill himself’

There continues to be a vocal faction claiming a moral right to social irresponsibility in the name of free speech, an entirely fallacious argument previously addressed in Social Responsibility on the Net: DMOZ Declines. I am happy to see governments and mental health advoicates finally starting to bring the power of legislation and legal sanctions to bear on the issue.

As a society, we all have a responsibility to protect the vulnerable, whether that means protecting children from sexual predators or the mentally ill from themselves.


social responsibility, DMOZ, ODP, suicide

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

DMOZ still promoting pro-anorexia, pro-self-injury sites

I last posted on these DMOZ listings on May 2, 2006, almost a month ago (see DMOZ and web sites promoting anorexia and self-injury). I just checked back today – nothing has changed.

DMOZ, also knows as the Open Directory Project or ODP, is a large human-edited internet directory owned by Netscape which is in turn owned by America Online (AOL) which is in turn owned by Time Warner, Inc. Recently, Google purchased a share of AOL making them also part-owners of DMOZ.

DMOZ is endorsing and promoting web sites whose primary purpose is helping young people starve themselves into ill health or death, mutilate their bodies through self-injury, or kill themselves. The rationale for this seems to be that this is some sort of lifestyle choice. The defense of the practice, as with the previous DMOZ defense of endorsing and promoting pro-pedophilia web sites, is the banner of “free speech”.

Anorexia is not a lifestyle choice. It is a mental disorder. So is self-injury. So is suicidal ideation (at least in the overwhelming majority of cases, leaving out the issue of incurable terminal illness). Endorsing such web sites is akin to promoting web sites that promote depression or panic attacks or paranoid thinking as a lifestyle choice.

Have a look at some of the listings in these DMOZ categories – these are presented as a quick sample and not intended to represent an exhaustive list:

Where is the social value in sites like these? Who do they benefit? Where is the social responsibility in promoting and endorsing sites like these? Does anyone really believe that mixing in a few sites on the dangers of anorexia or self-injury justifies the listing of pro-anorexia and pro-self-injury sites in a public directory with the size and status of DMOZ?

ODP, DMOZ, eating disorders, anorexia, bulimia, self-injury, suicide, social responsibility, social irresponsibility

DMOZ and web sites promoting anorexia and self-injury

I have written previously about the AOL-owned directory known as DMOZ or ODP (Open Directory Project) endorsing and promoting via listings in their directory sites that are pro-pedophilia and/or provide forums and chat rooms where child molesters can congregate to rationalize and justify their sexual preferences (see AOL-owned DMOZ Directory promotes child pornography [February 14, 2006] and DMOZ still listing pro-pedophilia sites [April 15, 2006]).

Now, I come across a recent publication in the APA journal Developmental Psychology warning of the dangers of the proliferation of web sites promoting self-injury, anorexia, and other self-destructive behaviors among young people:

The study’s three authors, all from Cornell University, point out that although internet contacts “clearly provide essential social support for otherwise isolated adolescents, they may also normalize and encourage self-injurious behavior.”

The study’s lead author, Janis Whitlock, explained in an interview that the marginalized adolescents who hurt themselves often are the types who are drawn to anonymous social contacts provided by internet bulletin boards and chat rooms.

And in the world of self-injury, the number of those virtual communities has grown prodigiously over the past decade, according to Whitlock’s research. The first was established in 1998. Currently, 406 exist.

It isn’t clear how much can be done to prevent the growth of sites such as these but it would seem to me that at least some pressure could be applied to web hosting services to take down the sites when they are made aware of them and to search engines and directories such as DMOZ to cease promoting them by listing such sites in their indices and making them easier to find. I have argued previously that if webmasters, directory owners, and search engines fail to demonstrate social and moral responsibility in the choices they make they may well find that they have lost the choice to make those decisions themselves, relinquishing them to international police forces and the courts.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone by now to learn that a quick search in the DMOZ directory locates this category – Top: Society: Issues: Health: Body Image: Pro-Anorexia. What one finds there are several listings for exactly the sorts of sites Whitlock is warning about:

Ana’s Underground Grotto – Background information about anorexia and food, tips and tricks, quotes, links, pictures, essays, and poetry. Beautiful PerfectionThinspiration, tips, tricks, poetry, pictures, bracelets, forum, and chat.
Cerulean ButterflyTips, tricks, thinspiration, resources and support for anyone suffering from an eating disorder.
Chaotic SerenityPro-anorexia basics, sections on food, exercise and media, link list, and chat room.
Life with Ana – Skin Deep – Offers personal story, tips, tricks, fasting information, and chat room.
LiveJournal: Happy Anorexic – Community message board for anorexic or bulimic people.
LiveJournal: Pro_Anorexia – Community message board for pro-ed people.
LiveJournal: Proanorexia – Community message board for people with eating disorders.
LiveJournal: Thinspiring – Community message board for thinspiration such as pictures, poems or stories.
Mia Is A Faithful Friend – Information and links about anorexia and bulimia. Thinspirational photos, tricks and quotes, nutrition and exercise, and chat.
Pro Ana Suicide Society – Community message board covering various topics ranging from eating disorders (male and female) to music and other interests (requires registration).
The Red Bracelet ProjectThinspiration gallery, recipes, excercise programs, and information on different eating disorders.
The Thin FilesA listing of pro-ana sites.
Words Won’t Bring Me Down – Personal story, daily food journal, tips and tricks, calories in foods, and thinspirational photos.

Those opposed to restrictions on the content of such websites use the red herring of “free speech”, apparently not understanding that society has long recognized that one person’s rights end where they endanger the rights or well-being of another. Supporters of DMOZ in particular have tried to argue that they are not promoting such sites, merely indexing them, and that too is nonsense: A directory of the size and influence of DMOZ has a responsibility to act responsibly and listing sites like these is not by any stretch of the imagination a socially or morally responsible act.

ODP, DMOZ, AOL, anorexia, eating disorder, self-injury