Service-oriented Internet companies and porn: Ning gets it right

I think it’s important—for a lot of reasons—to let people do what they want rather than to try to force people to do what you think is right. Ning is a company that gets it:

In a nutshell, we aren’t pro-porn, but we are pro-freedom.

To prevent porn, you have to take an activist stand against freedom of expression — you have to get in there and judge content, judge people, judge intent, and take action based on your judgments. I would never criticize a company for doing so, but I don’t want to do that, and we as a company don’t want to do that.

We think a better approach is to let people fundamentally do what they want, as long as it isn’t illegal and doesn’t otherwise violate our terms of service.

A heartfelt applause to Marc and everyone at Ning for putting their user’s personal choices ahead of their own. It’s not only good social justice, it’s excellent business.

Marc even provides some history:

From the very beginning of the Internet as a mass medium, porn has been present, and all of the Internet companies that have come before us have had to figure out where they stand.

[…]

[D]uring my time at AOL, I was fascinated to see how AOL dealt with porn. AOL had to balance two facts. One, their entire marketing thrust to be a mass market service meant that they had to come across as — and be — highly family-friendly. And in fact, they did a lot of work with parental controls and other features to make sure that families would use AOL safely. But the other fact was that a huge part of AOL’s actual usage all through the 90’s was for adult content — chat rooms, bulletin boards, and all the rest.

In practice, I think they balanced those two facts quite well — AOL could be used as a family-friendly service or as an open environment for people to do whatever they want, and it worked quite well for everyone.

This is a model that Yahoo then followed, and Google more recently.

Yahoo has always had an enormous amount of adult activity and material — some estimates are that as much as half of Yahoo Groups’ activity is adult in nature, for example.

And Google of course famously crawls and serves up search results and images for all kinds of adult topics, among every other topic in the world.

In light of many high-profile anti-porn practices by social networking sites such as MySpace, Facebook, and to a lesser degree, LiveJournal, it’s great to see that at least one company has put its own business ahead of other people’s politics. It’s precisely that sort of thing that’s made Marc an entrepreneurial blockbuster time and time again.

And frankly, I think the social agenda called freedom is just as important.

Via Susan Mernit