A California-based think tank claims America Online is failing to live up to its anti-hate policy by allowing certain “offensive” words to be used in AOL e-mail accounts, screen names and message boards.
Matthew Rosenthal, executive director of the Institute for the Study and Prevention of Hate Crimes, found that words slurring African Americans or Arabs could not be used when creating an e-mail account with AOL, but words that other ethnic groups might find slanderous were already being used or available for use.
“Why the obvious double standard?” he asks.
If AOL is going to make certain words off-limits, Rosenthal says, then it need to be fair and restrict words that may be construed as discriminatory to all ethnic groups.
A concerned AOL user recently informed the institute – which describes itself as a think tank combating “hate-motivated behavior” – that a person under the screen name of “urakike” was posting “pro-terrorist” notes on an AOL message board. On the Israel Politics board, messages including “Sharon is your pig leader,” “Jews are pigs” and “I’m hoping that when the U.S. finally attacks Israel we use thermo nukes to cleanse the land” were found. Rosenthal was confused as to why AOL would allow such messages to circulate when it claims it doesn’t allow hate speech on its boards.
AOL’s “Rules of User Conduct” states that users must agree they “will not upload, post or otherwise distribute” content that “victimizes, harasses, degrades an individual or group of individuals on the basis of religion, gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, age or disability.”
“They’re unwilling to enforce their own policy,” said Rosenthal.
To see what words AOL would and would not allow in their users’ e-mail addresses, Rosenthal typed in several discriminatory phrases. He says that “uranigger,” “uraraghead” and “uratowelhead” – phrases that African Americans and Arabs might find offensive – were not eligible e-mail addresses. E-mails that included cuss words also were not allowed. When he typed in “uraspic,” “urafaggot” and “uradirtyjew,” he found that the phrases were either already in use or available for use.
“I think they need to standardize their policy,” he said.
Rosenthal reported “urakike’s” messages to AOL on Monday, but he says they still have not canceled the e-mail address or deleted all the “emotionally traumatizing” messages.
Nicholas Graham, spokesman for AOL, told WND, “We have zero tolerance for hate speech on the service, anywhere on the service. So, whether it’s on chat rooms or message boards, if we are made aware of hate speech, we will actively remove it and we will reprimand the member who posted it.”
Asked why certain names are available for AOL e-mail accounts and others are not, Graham replied that there are certain filters in place on AOL, but “there are ways in which if you spell certain words a certain way, or precede them with numbers or asterisks … they are unique enough where we would need to be aware of them.”
Graham says AOL has a Community Action Team that handles hate speech found on the service and that they take action as soon as they are told of an instance where a member is not abiding by AOL’s user rules.
“Once we’re made aware of a screen name that contains a racial slur of any kind, we would block use of that screen name, contact the member and ask them to change it immediately,” he said.
Chris Evans, founder of Internet Freedom, disagrees with Rosenthal.
“Internet users should be free to express their views no matter how objectionable they may be. The right to be offensive is a fundamental part of the right to freedom of speech,” he said.
“Net users are quite capable of dealing with offensive words and opinions. AOL is treating all Net users as if they are pathetic victims unable to stand up to a few harsh words. In doing so, it disempowers users and sets AOL as morally superior to ordinary people.”
Believing that freedom of expression should be allowed over the Net, Rosenthal says he thinks AOL just ought to limit the amount of hate speech.
“When there are people out there with names ‘urakike’ or ‘urachink’ or ‘urafaggot,’ it reminds people how unsafe they are, and it becomes frightening,” he told WND.
“There are certain times when freedom of speech is limited because it can create injury for the public good.”
Using words such as “nigger,” “chink” or “kike” may offend some Internet users, Evans contends.
“But the truth is that it is the Internet audience who are empowered by freedom of speech by being able to make up their own minds about what they read,” he said.