Future Tense

“Let Us Get Our Stuff and Leave”

Verizon is blocking archivists who are trying to archive Yahoo Groups before the platform disappears.

The Yahoo logo.
Yahoo Groups is ending on Saturday. Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Update, Dec. 10, 2019: Verizon is extending the deadline for users to rescue their content from Yahoo Groups—but it appears it will continue to block volunteers trying to mass-archive content from the platform. A Verizon Media spokesperson told Slate in a statement, “In response to our users’ requests, we have decided to extend the deadline for requesting to download data from Yahoo Groups to Friday, January 31, 2020 at 11:59pm PST. Individual Groups users can use this tool to download any content he or she posted on Yahoo Groups. On Sunday, December 15, 2019, the content will no longer be available or viewable from the groups.yahoo.com site, but we will not delete it until all requests submitted prior to the above deadline have been completed.” When asked why the 128 volunteer archivists were banned, the spokesperson noted that the company’s terms of service prohibit users from downloading content that isn’t their own and from deploying third-party tools to extract content from its systems.

PCMag is reporting that archivists are criticizing Verizon Media’s response as meaningless, because the extended deadline only applies to individual users who want to save their own content, not volunteers who are trying to preserve content across the site. In addition, the download tool that Yahoo Groups is providing only retrieves text; photos and other files still have to be downloaded individually.

Original article: In October, Yahoo announced plans to shut down its 18-year-old platform for forums and email lists, Yahoo Groups, and delete all of its contents on Dec. 14—this Saturday. After that, Yahoo will only maintain the service’s mailing list functions. While Yahoo Groups’ popularity has been dwindling for a while now, the announcement sent the tens of thousands of users who still use the service in a frenzy to save the nearly two decades of old messages, photos, polls, databases, and other material. But it appears that Yahoo and its parent company, Verizon, are making it exceedingly difficult for these archivists to even access the platform.

On Sunday, Boing Boing reported that Verizon banned the email addresses that 128 volunteers with the digital heritage collective Archive Team had been using to access groups and collect the data. These volunteers, who are trying to upload old content to the web repository Internet Archive, are now unable to use the disposable emails and semi-automated scripts that allowed them join multiple Yahoo Groups at a time, thus expediting the lengthy process of saving so much material. Verizon informed the account holders that they had violated its terms of service, but did not specify what the exact violation was. Volunteers fear that, without these automated tools, they will now not have enough time to save everything before the weekend deadline. (Slate asked Verizon for comment and will update this article if the company responds.)

“We’re just trying to save our stuff. [Verizon] only gave us 58 days to do this,” said Brenda Fowler, who has been helping to lead the archiving effort with her blog Mods & Members, which is also known as the Yahoo Groups Crusade Headquarters. “It kind of makes me feel like Alderaan is about to be blown to bits with everything on it.”

Similar to Reddit and Google Groups, Yahoo Groups served as a worldwide gathering place where millions of communities with a wide array of interests have flourished. The archive team argues that the digital records of activity on the platform will be valuable for users who want to smoothly transplant their communities elsewhere, and for researchers who may find the content to be of historical significance. Yahoo Groups has been an outlet for writers and photographers to share their work. Scientists have exchanged data on its forums, and families have used it to discuss their genealogy research. It’s a popular host for neighborhood mailing lists. The platform was also a haven where people struggling with mental illness and other health-related issues could support one another and share resources, which could be useful for similar online communities in the future. (The U.K. has even used the platform to help keep track of phone numbers allocated to certain telecom companies.) “It’s almost like tearing down a historic building or trashing a classic car,” a post on Mods & Members reads. “[The groups] have such rich history, and now that history is about to be destroyed forever.”

Yahoo Groups and its users have been at odds for a while now. In 2013, the platform rolled out an update called NEO, which was supposed to make the site look more modern. However, people began pushing back upon discovering that the functionality was poor, and that elderly and vision-impaired users were having trouble navigating the site. In order to pressure Yahoo to reverse this change, Fowler created the Mods & Members as a place where disgruntled users could convene. Relations between users and the company continued to worsen. The changes caught the attention of Mark Fletcher, a tech entrepreneur who had created the email list service ONElist and merged it with an online community site called eGroups. In 2002, Yahoo bought eGroups and rebranded it as Yahoo Groups. Fletcher became disillusioned with what Yahoo Groups eventually became and decided to launch another email list and community service called Groups.io in 2014.

Because Groups.io resembles Yahoo Groups in many ways and has a certain combination of features that sites like Reddit and Facebook don’t offer, Fowler is now trying to help migrate users and communities over to Fletcher’s platform. However, the task has become increasingly difficult with the roadblocks that Verizon has put up. For now, her strategy is to try to raise as much fuss about Verizon’s actions as possible online and in the press, and to plead with executives via email and phone. Some volunteers are also trying to join groups one by one and save content manually, but it’s doubtful that they’ll be able to do much in six days.

Fowler said, “The humane and good thing [for Verizon] to do would be to stop blocking us, give us six more months at least, and let us get our stuff and leave. That’s all we’ve wanted to do.”

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.