ZDnet/Iran Hubbub: A Cautionary Web 2.0 Tale

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Richard Koman at ZDnet published a blog post late last night that amply demonstrates nearly everything that's right and wrong about Web journalism.

Using information he received from an Iranian blogger, Koman accused Yahoo of handing over the account information for 200,000 Iranian bloggers to the country's authorities -- an act not unlike handing a list of synagogue members over to the Nazis -- in exchange for the Iranian government lifting its ban on Yahoo access.

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That's an incredibly serious allegation, one I'd suspect a reputable newspaper would not have published without some kind of second- or third-party corroboration, as well as a response from Yahoo. But this is the blogosphere, where the normal rules no longer seem to apply.

It gets worse. What Koman phrased as a question ("Did Yahoo provide Iran with names of 200,000 users?") became "Exclusive! Yahoo Provided Iran With Names of 200,000 Users" on Digg, Techmeme, and elsewhere. Whether that was ZDnet's doing or some overeager Digger, I don't know. But that often happens with stories like this.

(Repeating accusations is virtually the same as making them, even if you phrase it as a question. So for the record: I'm not saying Yahoo did anything remotely like this. At this point, we don't know. And my gut tells me the whole story is BS. )

Yahoo's initial response nearly 12 hours later was a lone tweet:

"The ZDnet allegations are false. No Yahoo! representative met w/ any Iranian officials or disclosed user data to Iranian gov't."

As I was writing this, ZDnet updated the post to include Yahoo's more formal denial:

"The allegations in the story are false. Neither Yahoo! nor any Yahoo! representative has met with or communicated with any Iranian officials, and Yahoo! has not disclosed user data to the Iranian government. Yahoo! was founded on the principle that access to information and communications tools can improve people’s lives, and Yahoo! is committed to protecting and promoting freedom of expression and privacy. To learn more about our human rights efforts, please visit: http://humanrights.yahoo.com."

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