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Will Yahoo's ban on auctioned Nazi items work?

The company is banning auctions of Nazi and Ku Klux Klan-related items, but preventing such material from appearing on its site could prove impossible.

Yahoo is banning auctions of Nazi and Ku Klux Klan-related items, but preventing such material from appearing on its site could prove impossible.

Battling a lawsuit in France and under criticism from anti-racism groups in the United States, Yahoo announced Tuesday that it will no longer allow the sale of items that promote hate groups in its auctions, classifieds and other commerce areas.

To enforce the ban, Yahoo said it will use software to comb for objectionable material and employ a team of workers to review listings.

But the software could prove problematic, said Brian Fitzgerald, producer of Yahoo Auctions. Like other blocking software, Yahoo's filter technology could block non-objectionable material such as books on the Nazi party, while other material could slip through the cracks.

"Look, it is not foolproof," Fitzgerald said. "But this is not the only way we are going about this. It's just a first step."

Despite questions about the effectiveness of the human and software filters, the effort marks a turnaround for Yahoo. Previously, the company did not actively monitor the material auctioned on its U.S.-based Web site. Instead, the company acted more passively; complaints from members were reviewed by a committee that determined whether to remove items.

In choosing to police its auctions, Yahoo joins rivals Amazon.com and eBay, which already have monitoring systems in place. Like Yahoo, eBay largely relies on its members to police its auctions. But eBay also has employees that actively monitor its auctions for firearms, alcohol and other items that violate its terms of service.

Likewise, Amazon has employees and software in place to actively monitor its auctions for objectionable items.

Such systems have been far from perfect. Last spring, CNET News.com found dozens of auctions for weapons on the leading auction sites, despite corporate policies and state laws prohibiting the sale of such items. And a search on Amazon on Wednesday for "nunchaku"--a martial arts weapon specifically prohibited by the Seattle-based company--turned up 23 auctions, including 3 listings for "traditional" wooden weapons.

Meanwhile, auctions of pirated software have proliferated on eBay, Yahoo and other auction sites, despite rules banning them and efforts by the auction houses and software companies to crack down on such auctions.

Yahoo representatives declined to give details on how the company's filtering software will work, saying only that is "new and proprietary." But no matter how advanced the software, Yahoo will face a number of problems in policing its listings.

Needle in a haystack
Hundreds of thousands of auctions are posted on the leading auction sites each day, and at any one time eBay and Yahoo will have millions of active listings. That can make finding an auction that breaks the rules a little like finding a needle in a haystack.

In addition, much of the filter technology used to date on the Web has been based on keyword searches, which can be limited. Health advocates, for instance, are perpetually up in arms about browser filters that weed out legitimate health sites in their effort to prevent minors from accessing pornography.

Yahoo could face similar criticism if its new filtering software blocks history books on the Nazi period while allowing items that violate the rules because they've been misspelled or disguised.

Ostensibly, Yahoo's team of reviewers will be asked to review the tricky cases. But the judgment calls they make on which auctions they will allow and which they won't could upset auction users. Many eBay users, for instance, have argued that the company has gone too far in trying to quash auctions of pirated software, oftentimes canceling legitimate listings.