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AOL checks up on chat leaders

The online service is conducting background checks on the community leaders who work in its "Kids Only" area.

America Online (AOL) is now conducting background checks on the community leaders who work in its "Kids Only" area.

According to a November 14 letter mailed to Kids Only community leaders, AOL is "conducting a round of criminal background checks" on the leaders in the children's area.

David Cassel, who produces AOL Watch, a newsletter critical of AOL, said the notices were sent out the day after a former AOL attorney pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting an 11-year-old.

But the notice, sent by overnight mail, states that AOL is conducting the searches because "we have been working aggressively to make our service as safe and secure as possible."

An AOL spokesperson could not be reached for comment.

Cassel, in yesterday's newsletter, quoted a guide as saying, "People are NOT reacting well to this little surprise. I imagine they don't want too much time to be available for people to consult their attorneys."

While some may be criticizing AOL for the move, many others are likely to applaud the decision. AOL has long touted itself as a safe haven for children online and many of its members fall into the 18-and-under category.

The letter asks rhetorically for guides to consent to the check: "If you do not wish to submit to a background check, we regret that we will not be able to continue to use your services in our 'Kids Only' area."

AOL also sent out an email message to its partners on November 18, according to email supplied by Cassel.

"Today, the AOL Community Leaders Organization [CLO] took a big step toward maintaining a safe online environment for children," it starts. The CLO announced in the email message it will conduct background checks on all community leaders who staff AOL Kids Only chat rooms.

"Right now, this mandate applies to hosts, forum leaders, and other Community Leaders who work in AOL-owned areas, background checks will be required for Community Leaders for all sites in the Kids Only channel...By confirming the credentials of Community Leaders, AOL and AOL Partners can fulfill our commitment to a protected online experience for children."