By fighting for your privacy, Yahoo is fighting for its future

“Don’t worry, Yahoo knows what they’re doing,” said no one ever.

Or at least, not for awhile. While Yahoo is still around—and in many ways, still extremely relevant—the Internet giant has struggled to solidify what exactly their brand is in recent years. A lot of this trouble started back in 2008. As the New York Times’ Miguel Helft wrote, “It’s no secret that this has been a tough year for Yahoo. For investors, the company’s two major setbacks were the failed merger negotiations with Microsoft and the failed advertising partnership with Google, which disintegrated in the face of opposition from advertisers and the Justice Department.”

Oddly enough, though, opposing the government may just be the thing that gives Yahoo back some if its clout. In a Tumblr post last this week, Ron Bell, General Counsel for the company, revealed that they were was threatened with a fine of $250,000 per day, if they didn’t give up user information to the U.S. Government. He goes on to detail their struggles with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC,) and NSA surveillance program PRISM. Discussing the records that were requested, Bell wrote, “We consider this an important win for transparency, and hope that these records help promote informed discussion about the relationship between privacy, due process, and intelligence gathering.”

Before we join Bell in patting Yahoo on the back too much, it’s key to note that these battles are ongoing. Yahoo might have protected your privacy in this instance, but let’s not forget that tech companies are always walking a tightrope when it comes to big data.

Nevertheless, it’s appropriate to give Yahoo at least some credit here. And make no mistake, they definitely need it. Amidst ongoing image problems, it’s going to take more than a successful comedy brand to fix all their issues (although that’s a start). But with this new act of transparency, one has to wonder: Is Yahoo finally going to recommit themselves to their users?

Surely, that has to be CEO Marissa Mayer’s hope. Not everyone has been a fan of her tenure at the company, but with their upcoming Alibaba deal, it feels like Yahoo is once again on the precipice of a make or break moment.

“As the highest-profile female CEO in a corporate world still overwhelmingly and depressingly dominated by men, Mayer is already a trailblazer,” writes John McDuling at Quartz, “If she can set Yahoo on a sustainable post-Alibaba path, it would rank as one of the great corporate turnarounds. The problem is, to outsiders at least, there is no obvious way of achieving that.”

What McDuling is getting at is that despite the financial benefit Yahoo will gain from the Alibaba deal, it’s unclear what their vision for the future will be. Certainly, pushing their way into the original content game appears to be part of this. But we’re also talking about a company here that didn’t have the good sense to buy Google when they had the chance, and failed to acquire Facebook following an extremely aggressive pursuit. In short, it’s unclear who exactly Yahoo is going to be in the near future.

But before we continue to talk about what Yahoo can offer its users moving forward, let’s go back to politics for a second and look at why their recent revelations about security are particularly surprising. Because Yahoo hasn’t always been great about protecting user information. For instance, during the last Presidential election, they joined Microsoft in profiteering from big campaign funds.

Lois Beckett at ProPublica reported in 2012 that “Microsoft and Yahoo are selling political campaigns the ability to target voters online with tailored ads using names, zip codes and other registration information that users provide when they sign up for free email and other services.” She continues, “In one sense, campaigns are doing a more sophisticated version of what they’ve always done through the post office—sending political fliers to selected households. But the Internet allows for more subtle targeting. It relies not on email but on advertisements that surfers may not realize have been customized for them.”

Beckett’s story reflects a long history on the part of Yahoo and carelessness where its users are concerned, as this this carelessness is also in line with Yahoo’s prevalent pattern of acquisition. On multiple occasions, Yahoo has bought new and exciting startups, only to drive them out of business. Such was the case with Upcoming, and Delicious, and Geocities. Unsurprisingly, this led many to be wary when they purchased Tumblr for a billion dollars earlier this year (obviously, Tumblr seems like it’ll be okay for the moment).

But of all Yahoo’s business mishandlings in the last few years, none has been more notorious than the way they screwed up Flickr. Exploring the whole situation in depth, Mat Honan at Gizmodo found that Yahoo’s problem therein was its decision to treat Flickr solely as a photo database (which is all people really know it as today), without paying any mind to looking out for existing users, or trying to find new ones. He elaborates, also bemoaning their lack of foresight in terms of developing the site’s social potential.

It’s hard to remember, but back in 2005, Yahoo seemed like it had its game on. After losing out on search dominance to Google, it snapped up a bunch of small-but-cool socially oriented companies like Flickr (social photos), Delicious (social bookmarking), and Upcoming (social calendaring). There was a real sense that Yahoo was doing the right thing. It was, to some extent, out in front of what would come to be widely known as Web 2.0: the participatory Internet.

But Yahoo’s social success in those years was almost accidental. It wasn’t (and isn’t) a company with vision… It was a gateway, nothing more. This was hardly an innovative idea, or technically complicated to pull off. You don’t have to write algorithms to build a portal. Yahoo was little more than an electronic edition of Yellow Pages.

The final blow, according to Honan, was in messing up the Flickr mobile experience. “There’s a difference between a missed opportunity and a complete fuck-up,” he asserts. “When Yahoo failed to capitalize on Flickr’s social potential, that was a missed opportunity. But if you want to see where it completely fucked up, where it just butchered Flickr with dull knives and duller wit, turn on your phone and launch the Flickr app. Oh, what’s that, you don’t have one? Exactly.”

Harsh, although not unwarranted. Yahoo’s gross ineptitude when it came to Flickr is indicative of their inability to put users before a corporate mechanism. But that’s what also made their privacy announcement seem all the more revelatory; finally, Yahoo was not only matching other companies in figuring out what users’ want, they’re surpassing them.

The Daily Dot’s Curt Hopkins talked about as much earlier in September. “Yahoo is hardly alone among tech companies in hoping to salvage their reputation by pushing for permission to divulge information on how many NSA requests it has dealt with,” Hopkins wrote. “It is, arguably, the boldest, taking the first legal action by one of the ‘PRISM companies.’ Yahoo filed a request with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court asking that its arguments against the PRISM program be made public.”

Yet once again, it’s important to remember that while the steps Yahoo is taking are bold, they’re also baby steps. They’re only surpassing other tech giants in this regard because their peers are doing such a bad job with all things privacy-related.

And to reiterate, they have a lot of crap they pulled to make up for, too. Hopkins also mentions, “Yahoo already starts in the negative when it comes to its privacy record. Its reputation was nearly fatally damaged by its cooperation with the Chinese government in the 2004 arrest and sentencing of reporter Shi Tao to 10 years in prison for sharing (via Yahoo Mail) a Communist party memo on proscribed coverage of the Tiananmen Square anniversary.”

But even if Yahoo can maintain a good record where privacy is concerned, it’s still going to have to figure out what to do with all that Alibaba cash (besides make TV shows). For now, they’re a major presence in the tech world, but what kind of presence remains hazy.

Photo via Fortune Live Media/Flickr (CC BY N.D.-2.0)

Chris Osterndorf

Chris Osterndorf

Chris Osterndorf is an entertainment reporter and movie critic based in Los Angeles. He holds a degree in cinema from Chicago’s DePaul University. His work has appeared on the Daily Dot, Mic, the Script Lab, Salon, the Week, xoJane, and more.