Felix Stalder on Mon, 1 Feb 1999 01:01:53 +0100 (CET)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> "public space" on-line: AOL public forums (fwd)

[The article scratches an interesting problem. Whatever happens online
takes place in someone's private space, thus is not protected by civil
rights that govern traditional public space. The First Amendment, for
example, protects the right to free speech *in public*. And no matter how
many million subscribers AOL has, it cannot be public space. What AOL users
are allowed to do is always courtesy of AOL.  The ensuing dynamics of the
two types of spaces go in entirely opposite directions. Since no one owns
public space, nobody is responsible for what happens there, expect those
who make it happens. This allows to push responsibility to the individual.
In private space, the owner of the space is responsible for what happens
there. As a consequence, responsibility flows away from the individuals to
the owners.  For some anecdotes of that problem, read on. Felix]

NTY: January 31, 1999
Worries About Big Brother at America Online

Like the divided generations of Irish before them, the two opposing camps
of contributors to America Online's discussion group on Ireland rarely
agree on anything. But when the world's leading online service suspended
their contentious electronic debate last month, participants on both sides
were united in their dismay.

"Don't stop just to appease the AOL Thought Police," one proponent of a
united Ireland wrote to the Unionist contingent. "I'd much rather have
someone vehemently disagree with me than know that anyone has been

America Online reopened its Irish Heritage discussion after a 17-day
"cooling off" period, and if there was a strangely muted quality to the
contributions at first, things are mostly back to normal. The politics
folder, which now bears the slogan "a place for cordial political debate in
the spirit of harmony," has spawned more than 12,000 of the usual postings
regarding British treason and Sinn Fein terrorism since the beginning of
the year.

But the episode has fed a growing discomfort with the social and political
power America Online has come to wield by dint of its surging popularity
and its unusual purview over individual communication. And it underscores
the challenges the company may face as it seeks with mixed success to
maintain both civil discourse and satisfied customers while presiding over
180,000 continuing conversations on topics from the teen-age idols 'N Sync
to Presidential impeachment.

Balancing free expression with civility has always been a struggle for
America Online and other electronic publishers that provide areas where
people can voice their opinions by typing them into the ether. But it is
America Online's scope combined with its editorial control that some
critics say is cause for concern.

With 15 million subscribers, America Online is now the gateway to
cyberspace for more Americans than the next 15 largest Internet service
providers combined, according to a report released last week by the
International Data Corp., a market research firm. This week, announcing
strong earnings, the company said 1.6 million accounts were added in the
last three months of 1998 alone.

But some members have begun to chafe at its definition of civility, or at
least the way it seems sometimes arbitrarily applied. And some civil
liberties advocates are scrutinizing the service more closely as a new
breed of institution that governs speech and yet is immune from First
Amendment claims.

A flurry of recent clashes in discussion areas ranging from race relations
to fiction writing have served to heighten concerns over the company's more
subtle methods of monitoring the discussions on its message boards -- the
continuing discussions that subscribers can follow and contribute to over
time, as distinct from the simultaneous and sometimes chaotic (but also
monitored) exchanges in what it calls chat rooms. In particular, some
subscribers cite the online service's practice of deleting message board
postings without explanation and of attaching the equivalent of demerit
marks to the accounts of individuals deemed to have offended another

Who Decides What's Offensive?

The question is, who gets to decide what's 'offensive?"' says Renee
Rosenblum-Lowden of Riegelsville, Pa., who recalls being cited for a
violation for posting a message in a debate on abortion advising an
opponent, "If you can't stand the heat get out of the kitchen."

Under America Online's contract, universally referred to among members in
both noun and verb form as TOS, for "terms of service," all subscribers
promise not to "harass, threaten, embarrass, or do anything else to another
member that is unwanted." Often transgressions are reported to America
Online officials by other discussion group participants, whose identities
are not released to those they accuse. According to the company's
subscriber contract, three such violations may result in the suspension or
termination of an account.

Ms. Rosenblum-Lowden -- whose screen name is now "Prejteach 2" because her
"Prejteach" account was closed -- says she and a group of other women who
take part in discussions on the Women in Action board have been picked as
targets for complaints by those who disagree with their liberal views.
"Unlike a court of law, you don't face your accusers," she said. "That
gives people free rein."

America Online officials concede that judging what is unduly offensive in
often-complex political disputes or long-running personal battles can be
tricky, especially given the volume and range of messages. That is why the
company has enlisted nearly 14,000 volunteers to patrol the boards, and
employs a group of about 100 known as the Community Action Team to
determine when a comment crosses the line.

In intervening in conversations between its users, America Online says its
objective is to maintain a sense of community. Although legal liability for
libelous statements appearing on its boards was once more of a concern, a
provision of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 essentially grants online
services immunity from prosecution over such matters, characterizing them
as a "common carrier" like a telephone company -- simply a means by which
information is transmitted, with no responsibility for the information

Most terms-of-service violations are handled case by case. In an extreme
case like the Irish board, where dozens of violations were being reported
every day by the most active participants, the company said there were
enough profane and offensive postings that it became necessary to shut down
the whole discussion. The discussion archives, which sometimes remain on
the service for several years, were wiped clean during the weeks that the
board was shut down, so no trace remains.

"There's a certain amount of judgment required in situations on whether
something is particularly harassing or threatening of other members," said
Katherine Boursecnik, America Online's vice president for network
programming. "That's where things get the most difficult. We train people
to be agnostic about the specific content and to look more at things like
tone: Is it threatening, harassing, profane, vulgar?"

But given the well-documented tendency of normally sober citizens to act
out on line, the problems of privacy protection and threats to minors -- as
well as Congressional efforts to regulate online speech -- Ms. Boursecnik
said the company's supervisory policies were necessary to provide the open
atmosphere its customers wanted.

"We are a service that prides ourselves on having a wide-ranging appeal to
a wide range of individuals," she added. "But at the same time we're also a
family service."

For Some, Control Is Seen as a Virtue

Indeed, for many subscribers, America Online's virtue is its controlled
environment. A members-only online service distinct from the unfettered
Internet, America Online has achieved market dominance by promoting itself
as a place where families and first-time Internet users can feel
comfortable. While members can venture out into the World Wide Web and
other parts of the Internet from the online service, many seldom do,
preferring America Online's relative safety and familiarity.

The service is far from the only Internet discussion area to enforce its
own standards of acceptable speech. Popular Web destinations like the
search and directory site Yahoo, discussion-oriented sites like
Theglobe.com, and sites operated by traditional publishers (including The
New York Times) reserve the right to remove postings on the message boards
they provide to Internet users. And those who find America Online's terms
unacceptable can always go to another online service, or to the Internet's
entirely unmonitored forums called news groups.

But America Online's extraordinary market dominance, critics argue, makes
it the only place in practical terms for a growing number of people to
speak their mind in cyberspace. Many Internet users find the unmoderated
news groups too technically complex to use and too overrun with advertising
to be productive for discussion. Since it serves as an Internet service
provider, America Online has a far more potent enforcement mechanism for
its rules than most other discussion areas on the Web. Since subscribers
pay a monthly fee with a credit card, the company can bar individuals from
logging on -- thereby denying them, among other things, access to e-mail.

"America Online is the operating system of the Internet," said Andrew L.
Shapiro, the First Amendment fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at
New York University Law School, comparing the service to the Microsoft
Corp.'s Windows operating system, which runs on 90 percent of the world's
personal computers.

"We've moved distressingly close to the model that the Internet was
supposed to replace, which is a couple of big companies having a
disproportionate amount of control over the information market," Shapiro
added. "A good argument can be made that AOL needs to take on more
responsibility for protecting free speech, whether courts require it or
consumers simply demand it."

Canceling Service as Sign of Protest

Although some subscribers, like John Navin, 38, of Mount Lake Terrace,
Wash., said he had dropped his America Online account to protest the Irish
board shutdown, others dissatisfied with its interventions remain with the
service out of choice, habit or necessity.

When Sheila Fahey found the Irish discussion shuttered last month, for
example, she and others tried to migrate their discussion to a site on the
World Wide Web called Ireland Uncensored. But she found the forum confusing
and too difficult to follow. Instead, she says she and several other Irish
nationalists now screen each other's postings before making them public to
vet them for possible terms-of-service violations.

"We've all learned not to use first-person pronouns," said Ms. Fahey, 41, a
paralegal in Chicago. "If an English teacher looked at some of our
postings, they are so passive-language-filled they'd have a cow."

(When the discussion was reopened, the monitor posted a message pleading
for harmony: "We encourage you to make this a more amiable place where any
person, regardless of faction, can openly discuss political issues and
current events.")

For Robin Olderman, 54, a high school English teacher in Houston, it means
putting up with what she describes as feeling like a kid in a playground
whose friends go running to the teacher.

"I take issue with the way the rules are enforced arbitrarily," said Ms.
Olderman, who is currently operating under a "mutual nonharassment notice,"
an e-mail message from America Online explaining that she and another
subscriber are never to speak to each other via the service again.

Perhaps more disturbing to some subscribers is the removal of postings from
message boards. On the Writers Club board, which like many areas of America
Online is administered by a separate company that contracts with the
service, more than a dozen of the most active participants over the last
several years recently left en masse after the board monitors began
removing their postings and reporting terms-of-service violations more
frequently to the Community Action Team.

The writers now congregate on a board called "Sanctuary" in the American
Civil Liberties Union area on America Online, where the terms-of-service
rules do not apply.

On the race relations message board, Jay Lutsky, 31, of Edison, N.J., said
he compared an active participant who accused everyone on the board of
being his enemy to Robespierre, the French Jacobin leader responsible for
the revolution's Reign of Terror. It was removed by monitors after the
other participant said it was slander.

"I said it was opinion; I'm entitled," Lutsky, a teacher, said. "I
understand AOL is a large private corporation, and I guess it's technically
their property, but I don't think it should be allowed to interfere with
the First Amendment rights of people."


Les faits sont faits.
#  distributed via nettime-l : no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime> is a closed moderated mailinglist for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: majordomo@desk.nl and "info nettime-l" in the msg body
#  URL: http://www.desk.nl/~nettime/  contact: nettime-owner@desk.nl