The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), NationalGayLobby.org, and Hate Watch today said the nation's largest online service provider recently required a gay member to remove language from his "member profile," although the company routinely ignores racist and anti-gay comments.
"It appeared to us that AOL monitors were particularly coming down on gay men for member profiles that relate to sexual proclivities," said Michael Romanello, executive director of NationalGayLobby.org. Member profiles are written by AOL subscribers to describe their interests and are aimed at helping others get to know them.
According to the San Francisco Chronicle, a gay AOL member recently complained to the Fort Worth chapter of the ACLU that AOL had asked him to remove language in his member profile that described him as a "submissive bottom."
Rich D'Amato, an AOL spokesman, denied that the service enforces its speech policies unevenly.
"I think we try always to be even-handed and to strike a balance," he said. "Those who've [posted profiles with] hate speech have also been actioned."
Today's charges highlight concerns that the Net, which has given voice to tastes and points of view of all stripes, has become a soapbox for racists and bigots.
In an acknowledgment of the freewheeling nature of the Net, AOL's terms of service prohibits strong language, hate speech, and crude sexual references. Violations can lead to a warning or a termination of an AOL user's account. But some critics say the company doesn't go far enough in policing many violations and overreacts to others.
A survey by Internet consulting firm Wired Strategies turned up numerous unenforced violations of the hate speech ban on AOL, including one member profile with the statement "all fags must die AIDS cures queers."
Frank Provosek, president of the Fort Worth chapter of the ACLU, said he received an AOL action letter from an AOL member with the following notification:
"The [deleted] screen name created/edited a profile that contained the following inappropriate content: 'Quote: 38 5-8 150 brown/blue stache smooth 7.5 cut submissive bottom.' AOL has deleted this profile from the Member Directory. Feel free to create a new profile that does not include this kind of objectionable content."
Provosek said he does not know the real name of the person who complained about AOL censorship, and that the email address it was sent from has been canceled.
D'Amato said AOL does not actively filter speech on its service. He said the company investigates complaints about member profiles and shuts down offensive language when it becomes aware of a violation.
He added that member profiles include a link through which members can notify AOL's community action team of potential speech violations; he said he did not know how many employees work on the team.
This is not the first time AOL has come under fire by gay and lesbian rights groups. The most notable instance came when AOL admitted it had disclosed the member account of Timothy McVeigh, a naval officer, to a naval investigator. Because of the disclosure, the Navy discharged the sailor for "Homosexual Conduct Admittance" because he typed the word "gay" on his member profile under "Marital Status." He has since been reinstated.
Critics aren't yet ready to let AOL of the hook for what they see as AOL's selective application of its speech rules. NationalGayLobby.org's Romanello plans to form a coalition of community groups to approach AOL to discuss the situation.
"All we are asking is for AOL sit down with us or other people representing communities to explain its policies, and why they are not apparently being employed even-handedly," he said.
News.com's Evan Hansen contributed to this report.