Et tu, Yahoo!? It all started on April 11-the day the world's biggest Web site announced a first-quarter loss and 12 percent staff layoffs. The Los Angeles Times discovered that Yahoo! had recently reorganized the adult-entertainment directory on its video shopping area, and let the world know in an article titled "Yahoo's Search for Profit Leads to Pornography."
That kind of headline can cause cardiac arrest in the corporate communications department. Subsequent references to the company as the "behemoth in the online pornography business" were enough to signal Code Blue.
In a terse attempt to salvage the situation, Yahoo! claimed the Times scoop was a nonstory. Such stuff had been on sale through Yahoo! Shopping for two years without destroying the moral fabric of the nation.
The company cited two points: Access to the shopping site was rigorously limited to adults through credit-card checks, and second, in the great value-free-for-all of the Web, porn sites were like any other. But no one was buying it.
The story was picked up by other media outlets, proving once again that sex sells. Over the next 36 hours, 100,000 e-mails from the shocked, appalled and outraged poured into Yahoo!'s server. By April 13, the virtual X-rated mall was history.
Nor did Yahoo!'s born-again blue- noses end there. They declared the company would no longer accept adult-oriented ads. Sex-related items were being stripped from the auctions and classified sites. Adjustments are planned to make it even harder to find sex-related sites on its search engine.
Within 48 hours, this venerable Internet institution abandoned not only its venture into X-commerce, but its longtime stance that it didn't make the Web-it just helped guide people to their destination.
It is ironic that for so many revenue- and profit-starved Internet businesses, the one surefire money-maker on the Web is off-limits. As they like to say in the "space," sex is easily "monetized." It's the oldest story on the Internet, the dirty secret that everybody knows.
Google.com estimates there are 1.4 billion unique Web pages on the Net; 12 percent of them are devoted to sex and pornography. Google's users know this well: "Sex" ranks as the most-used key word on the search engine.
Which is why the rush by the world's largest Web site to wash its hands clean of adult entertainment is important. Porn is not incidental to the Net. It's where new technology meets reptilian brain. We'll never know porn's role in driving mass acceptance of the Internet, but my guess is that it's considerable.
In pornography, the many unique virtues of the Net come into play:
privacy, anonymity, global access, interactivity and freedom of choice. The X-rated Web is a fun-house mirror offering a distorted reflection of the Internet's utopian promise as a de-centered, disintermediated, value-free space, made for and by its self-empowering users. And as pornography goes, so goes that promise.
No one can argue against the corporate wisdom of Yahoo!'s total surrender on the porn front. But when the history of the Internet is written, Yahoo!'s change of heart will rate a mention. Before the porn flap, there was Yahoo!'s ban on the sale of Nazi artifacts under pressure from the French government. Slowly but surely, social norms and the authority of the powers that be are narrowing the most-visited window on the Net's chaotic carnival of choice.
Perhaps this retreat became inevitable once Yahoo! ceased to be the value-neutral phone directory of the Web and became a brand. But Yahoo! isn't the only institution subject to this pressure. Consider the fate of Napster.
The music site exploited the unique peer-to-peer transparency of the network, liberating consumers by freeing them from the middlemen who distribute the stuff. It, too, has been laid low by another treasured norm: private ownership. This is how a medium once destined to "change everything" begins to resemble every one before it. It may be that people want it that way.
Certainly those who launched 100,000 e-mails at Yahoo! do. Yahoo! characterized its rapid reversal as harkening to the voice of its users. These days, the consumer can accomplish anything-even his own disempowerment.
Still, the Net is not tamed so easily. There are still about 168 million porn Web pages out there, and if you need them you can always type "sex" into Google.com. Apparently, everyone else does.