Yahoo to turn subscribers' e-mail contact lists into social networking base

By Cecilia Kang
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Yahoo plans to announce Tuesday that it is jumping into social networking by using its massive population of e-mail subscribers as a base for sharing information on the Web.

Over the next few weeks, its 280 million e-mail users will be able to exchange comments, pictures and news articles with others in their address books. The program won't expose a user's contact list to the public, as was done by Google through its social networking application, Buzz. But unless a user proactively opts out of the program, those Yahoo e-mail subscribers will automatically be part of a sweeping rollout of features that will incorporate the kinds of sharing done on sites such as Facebook and MySpace.

The plan could spark criticism from Yahoo e-mail users, who signed up for the free service perhaps never imagining the people they e-mailed would become friends for sharing vacation videos, political causes and random thoughts throughout the day. And the move comes amid growing concern by federal lawmakers and regulators over how firms such as Facebook, Google and Microsoft have handled the privacy of Internet users.

After backlash, Facebook last week announced new privacy tools to make it easier for users to block Web sites from tapping into their information, as well as a simpler way to configure who on the site can see personal data. Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, asked Facebook on Friday to explain what kind of user data it had shared with third-party sites. Conyers also asked Google to retain, for federal and state regulators, the data the company scooped off WiFi networks as it collected Street View mapping photos around the country.

To allay privacy concerns, Yahoo said it would give users a week's notice before launching the new features and provide a single button on the site for opting out entirely.

"We've been watching and trying to be thoughtful about our approach," said Anne Toth, head of privacy for Yahoo.

Specifically, the company will launch a product called Yahoo Updates that allows e-mail users to see what other contacts on their lists are commenting about or sharing on sites like Yahoo Finance, Facebook and the photo sharing site Flickr. Updates will initially include 15 sites and partnerships and will eventually expand to include partners such as Twitter this summer.

Yahoo has tiptoed into social media, launching a similar tool last year called Connections, which allowed each user to customize a list of contacts with whom to share information. The company also tried two years ago to build a competitive product to Facebook, where users sought "friends," or contacts, to join micro-networks within Yahoo in the same way Facebook users amass friends through requests. Yahoo abandoned that project and instead decided to tap into its captive audience of e-mail users.

The move is part of a revamping of the once-rudderless Internet pioneer. Chief executive Carol Bartz, brought in last year to lead the firm, has stripped the company of unprofitable business units to focus on its greatest strengths -- its popular free e-mail and messaging programs, and its library of sports, news and finance sites -- to keep users in the Yahoo universe longer.

The longer a user stays on the site, the more advertising dollars and e-commerce it generates. But it remains to be seen if users will view their contact lists as the kinds of people they choose to socialize with on the Web. When Google launched Buzz, some users complained that they used Gmail for business and to correspond with strangers and that they didn't want to share birthday videos with their plumbers or bosses.

Yahoo will begin notifying users of the change on June 7, one week before the launch. Users who don't want to participate can click one button on the settings page to opt out. Or they can customize each piece of information -- a Facebook update or a comment on a Yahoo news story -- to either be shared with Yahoo e-mail contacts or Facebook. Eventually, Twitter and other partners with social-networking platforms will also be included.

"What Yahoo has done is recognized that your e-mail or messenger network is a useful resource and that you may be interested in knowing what your contacts are interested in knowing about, and they stop there," said Jules Polonetsky, the director of the Future of Privacy Forum, a privacy think tank. "That's opposed to the idea that then, therefore, your relationship with them risks being exposed."

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