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AOL nixes serial killer site

Facing threats of a national boycott, America Online takes down a member's Web site that focused on serial killers, saying the site is offensive and violates its terms of service.

Facing threats of a national boycott, America Online (AOL) decided to take down a member's Web site that focused on serial killers, saying the site is offensive and violates its terms of service.

Wyoming governor Jim Geringer, who came across the page while searching for documents about a serial killer he is seeking to extradite, yesterday held a joint press conference with Marc Klaas, father of slain 12-year-old Polly Klaas and founder of the Klaas Foundation for Children, and called for a boycott of AOL for hosting the Web site.

Upon hearing today that AOL decided to take down the pages, Klaas responded: "Great. That's marvelous."

Klaas, who himself has used the Web to communicate his foundation's message, said he learned about the site on AOL while traveling through Wyoming in support of victims' and children's rights. He heard about Geringer's fight on the news and contacted the governor's office.

Both Geringer and Klaas maintain that the issue is not one of speech but that of a company's decision whether to host a site that it considers morally offensive.

"This is not a free-speech matter, as far as I'm concerned," Klaas said. "I do suggest it's a matter of moral authority and also a matter of public safety. We're talking about one of the human monsters, the psychopathic musings about one of the human monsters, the psychopathic musings of one of the devil's own."

Sondra London, the site's owner, said she has had offers from several other Web service providers to host her site and hopes to move within a few weeks. While saying that America Online treated her almost gently, allowing her to keep her AOL account to exchange email, she also was dismayed by the turn of events. London said that as a private company AOL had the right to drop her site, but she worried about the implications of squelching her site and others like it.

"Attempts to suppress speech only serve to stimulate the will to speak and be heard," she wrote about the case. "There are those who approve of suppressing speech that some find objectionable. Others, like myself, see the danger in giving up those freedoms which we do have, or in allowing the government to abrogate these hard-won civil liberties when they were deliberately reserved for the people."

Perhaps ironically, the ACLU agreed that AOL has the right to choose the content it allows on its member pages--as long as the person putting up that content has an alternative, according to Ann Beeson, staff attorney for the ACLU.

"I get calls from people, unfortunately, all the time, who complain about AOL's practice of either taking down their Web sites or banning particular [speech]," she said. "They have a long-standing practice of controlling content on their system."

But, she added, "the bottom line is this is just another really bad policy decision of AOL, but there is not a civil-liberties issue involved because they're a private company and these people can pick another site."

If AOL had a larger part of the market, then constitutional issues would be raised, Beeson said. Right now, there probably is another place where London can post her site.

Earlier this week, after being contacted by Geringer's office, AOL had asked its Webmaster to remove a portion of the site that was particularly offensive: a serial killer start-up kit, according to AOL spokeswoman Tricia Primrose.

The company then continued to evaluate the site and decided yesterday to take the whole thing down. "[Yesterday], we made the determination that the content of this site was offensive and objectionable and not something that we wished to be associated with," she said. "The site was in violation of our terms of service."

This isn't the first time AOL has removed a site. But that doesn't mean that in every case the online service determines a site to be "objectionable."

Other have asked for sites to be removed, and AOL has turned them down. In this case, Primrose said that it would have responded the way it did had users complained about this particular site. The fact that a governor and high-profile victims'-rights activist complained did not influence AOL's decision, she noted.

This is from a member's page on America Online featuring serial killers, which the online service will be taking down. Pictured here is convicted serial killer Dan Rolling.