Disagree with Kwanzaa and Amerika Online will declare you disagreeable.
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IN OUR E-BUSINESS AGE, this is no laughing matter. A bounced contract or RFP could cost a company business and its good name, not to mention hefty attorney fees in the event of a lawsuit. That’s why the Electronic Frontier Foundation argues vigorously that “all nonspam email should be delivered.”
The EFF’s Lee Tien says, “We’ve received many questions of this type over the years regarding AOL; we’ve never found any evidence that AOL practices any sort of institutional censorship.”
But there’s institutional and then there’s institutional, and the EFF itself hasn’t entirely avoided AOL’s heavy hand. According to a recent Wired News story, EFF’s newsletter was blocked “because it contained the word ‘rape,’ used when talking about EFF’s advocacy on behalf of an online group, Stop Prisoner Rape.” AOL also blocked emails from another EFF client, the liberal pressure group MoveOn.org, possibly because its mailing list grew so quickly during the Iraq war.
So, is AOL, intentionally or otherwise, censoring political speech? And if so, can anything be done to stop them?
Tien admits that as a private company, AOL is “generally not affected” by the First Amendment when it makes its own “content based decisions.” A federal statute also protects AOL and other Internet Service Providers against lawsuits if they remove content for being “offensive.”
As for my own experience, Tien says his “technical expert, who in a past life worked on spam control code, says it’s highly likely this is occurring because of spam filtering, but it’s hard to know. And if there is a bigger issue here, it’s the effect of efforts to control spam on Internet information flow.” Right now, the EFF is concerned that well-meaning anti-spam legislation may criminalize everyone who tries to “spoof” or disguise their identity in an email FROM line: penalizing not only spammers, but whistleblowers at home and political dissidents abroad.
Cassell concurs: “Because of AOL’s reputation as a heavy-handed censor, people assume their email is being censored. AOL policies — and their unresponsiveness — make it hard to determine whether this is the case. The best thing you can say is: Cheer up. They may just be incompetent.”
(View the poem that inspired this article here and send it to friends with AOL.)
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