Internet Service Providers (ISP’s) have an obligation to monitor their clients’ behavior. With the widespread use of electronic mail (E-mail) and the development of pseudonym or anonymous accounts with “free” E-mail (e.g., Yahoo Mail, Hotmail , and many others), it is possible for people to conceal their true identity when sending messages. While there may be valid circumstances for identity concealment in forums such as matchmaking sites, there is potential for abuse in other situations. Many people are using anonymous mail privileges to spread false, commercially motivated information (e.g., investment news, product recommendations) and others are using these channels to spread malicious messages. While it would be unreasonable for an ISP to police every message or to act on isolated complaints, persistent abusive behavior deserves quick and effective attention.
Most ISP’s have strict Terms of Service that spell out what they will not permit. Some do an excellent job of enforcing their policies, whereas others do little or nothing. However, there is often uneven or nonexistent enforcement. Most ISP’s explicitly prohibit use of their services for harassment, libel, and other similar forms of abuse—the punishment being loss of the abuser’s account. The procedures for receiving and reviewing complaints vary considerably. There is also great variability in the threshold at which an ISP will act against an abuser.
Yahoo.com appears to be among the worst. Most complaints to email@example.com address are either unanswered to generate the following response:
This is an auto-acknowledgement to let you know that we have received your report. Your message is important to us and will be read and responded to promptly. Please do not respond to this acknowledgement or re-send your message unless you have additional information to report.
Thank you for e-mailing the Yahoo! Mail Abuse Team. The Yahoo! Terms of Service (TOS) forbids email abuse. It is very important to us that any violations of these policies are identified and addressed. We appreciate your assistance as we enforce these policies.”
No case number is assigned, and no contact information is provided. Repeated complaints to firstname.lastname@example.org about the same offender generate the same result. Thus, someone who is being harassed or otherwise abused has no further avenue to pursue the problem with Yahoo.com, and basically has to start from scratch each time.
I speak from personal experience. I have attempted to engage Yahoo.com in a meaningful dialog for more than six months because one of its free clients used his account to libel me. It took six months of complaining to generate the following response from them:
Thank you very much for reporting this incident to Yahoo! Customer Care.
In this particular case, we have identified the Yahoo! address used in connection with the unwanted email message. We have taken appropriate action as per our Terms of Service (TOS).
This response suggested that an action was taken. However, there was no indication of what that action was. There was also no identifying number or further contact information. The account was NOT canceled, which is what the TOS says will happen with persistent abuse. The abusive postings have continued.
Dr. Stephen Barrett has had a similar experience in attempting to get Yahoo to stop the spread of libelous messages through a Yahoo E-mail account. Yahoo has also ignored requests from him to stop copyright violations.
Although Yahoo has a telephone number listed in its InterNIC registration, that number does not lead to a live person or even an answering machine. Despite repeated E-mail requests for appropriate action, Yahoo has failed to stop the abuse and has refused to provide the name and telephone number of an individual with whom the problem could be discussed.
The Bottom Line
Yahoo continues to permit libel and harassment to occur, even after several reported offenses, reported by different victims of the same offender. Further, it does not provide a mechanism for human contact in trying to address a justifiable complaint. Now that Yahoo has acquired E-groups (now called Yahoo Groups), where thousands of posts are made daily, the potential for mischief has increased. Before the acquisition, E-groups promptly cancelled privileges for an individual who had used their services improperly. They also had an open channel to their legal department and rigidly enforced their Terms of Service.
In my opinion, Yahoo is not behaving like a good citizen of the Internet. Please take this into account if you are considering the use of its services.
Dr. Baratz, who is licensed to practice both medicine and dentistry, resides and works in the Boston area. He serves as a consultant to numerous state licensing boards, government agencies, and the media on issues related to health fraud. He is also a board member of the National Council Against Health Fraud.