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Banned by AOL

Disagree with Kwanzaa and Amerika Online will declare you disagreeable.

By 12.21.03

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For more than three years, I've run a weblog about religion, politics -- the usual non-dinner-table topics. And each December, regular as Rudolph, I diss Kwanzaa.

The fake "African harvest festival" (invented by a Marxist black supremacist ex-con in 1972) is now celebrated by school kids in place of Hanukah and Christmas. Call me crazy, but I don't like that one bit. So earlier this month, I knocked off a bit of doggerel about Kwanzaa and posted it to my site.

That's when the spam hit the filter. Or something. I'm still trying to figure out exactly how my poem and I became two of America Online's most wanted.

A few days after I posted the poem, a site called Bressler.org promoted it on the front page. I was flattered, then troubled by an anonymous message in the comments section:

Very odd. I tried to forward this link to an AOL subscriber, but I got a 'Delivery Status Notification' message from postmaster@mail.hotmail.com saying that the link was reported as offensive and automatically blocked. Does AOL really censor email?

A string of number-heavy headers follows, but one phrase stands out in plain English:

The URL contained in your email to AOL members has generated a high volume of complaints.

Wow! -- my stupid poem, my puny blog, deemed "offensive" by a colossal corporation. My first reaction was that "Banned by AOL" would look great on my homepage. Then I started to wonder, as the anonymous commenter had: Does AOL censor email? And if so how? When and why? Come to think of it, Is that even legal? What constitutes "a high volume of complaints" and who is doing the whining?

IRONICALLY, MY E-MAIL INQUIRIES to AOL bounced back. Their online Customer Service form didn't work, either. While waiting for a media contact to return my call (she never did) I made like a professional journalist and Googled, "AOL + sucks."

That led me to David Cassell.

"AOL has a reputation for censorship," says Cassell, who should know. He's run the AOL Watch Newsletter since 1996. "AOL uses [its Parental Controls feature] as a marketing device, touting their ability to restrict children's level of internet access. There's just one problem with that. In any attempt to censor, there's 'collateral damage.'"

Cassell reels off a list of infamous incidents:

In 1994 AOL made the New York Times for prohibiting chat rooms for feminist punk rockers known as "riot girls." AOL's spokeswoman told the Times they were afraid young girls would "go in there looking for information about their Barbies." Nine years later, that word ["girl"] is still off limits. "Girl Scout Cookies," "The Girl From Ipanema" -- forget it.

A woman wrote a book of online dating tips called You've Got Male. She filed a lawsuit in 2000 alleging that AOL was blocking their members from accessing her web site, Youve-Got-Male.com Reuters reported that AOL had earlier demanded she stop selling the book and to never re-print it.

In 2000, CNET News reported that AOL's "youth filters" were preventing young surfers from accessing liberal websites; "your children can easily view the site of the Republican National Committee," Brian Livingston reported at the time, "but the Democratic National Committee is blocked."

But those are chat rooms and websites. Cassell has fewer documented examples of email "censorship" -- which may in fact simply be nothing more than an overly sensitive spam filter in action. Then again, he says, "AOL blocked delivery of my AOL Watch newsletter to its 25,000 subscribers on AOL. That particular edition had included the phone number for canceling your AOL accounts."

Cassell explains that "AOL's privacy policy also specifies that AOL can read your e-mail 'to protect the company's rights and property.' Whether they do or don't -- they can."

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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About the Author

Kathy Shaidle runs the website Relapsed Catholic.