Already plagued for several months by questions about its financial future and billing practices, America Online is now battling charges of racism.
The leading online service was deluged with complaints this week and threatened with a lawsuit from a Mexican American civil liberties organization after reports about its policy of excluding every language but English in a particular message board devoted to sports fans. The company quickly relented on the issue and opened AOL's "Grandstand" forum--a collection of several sports-related message boards--to all languages. But the largest online service has nonetheless been left tainted by the whole affair.
AOL has more than 6 million subscribers, all of whom can communicate with each other in two ways besides email: message boards or live chat rooms. Electronic message boards store and display messages for varying lengths of time; chat rooms let users converse electronically with other AOL subscribers immediately.
A chat room is a real-time communication medium, comparable to the telephone, where the hosting online service functions as a kind of common carrier but does not take responsibility for the information that flows over its wires. A message board, on the other hand, is more akin to classified advertising--and AOL, for one, accepts the responsibility of monitoring such boards for obscenities or other material deemed inappropriate.
This was the basis for AOL's official reasoning behind its original English-only policy in the Grandstand forum, which has been used by many Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking users, especially during this summer's Olympic Games: the company said it didn't have any Spanish-speaking employees on its volunteer monitoring staff. And because it didn't want to be held responsible for uncontrolled messages, the service simply deleted any that were written in Spanish as quickly as they appeared.
AOL does maintain chat rooms and message boards for French and German speakers, however.
"Why did this rule apply only in the Latin folders? Why didn't it apply in the German or French rules?" asked Marcelo Rossetti, an AOL subscriber and frequent visitor to the Grandstand message boards. "This rule should have applied across the boards."
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Rossetti challenged AOL's claim that it didn't have any Spanish-speaking volunteers. He said he offered to volunteer in a March letter to the company but never got a response, so he assumed that the online service didn't need any more Spanish-speaking overseers.
"You're going to tell me that in the United States they can't find anyone who speaks Spanish?" Rossetti asked, with more than a touch of rhetoric. "Maybe in Iceland, but not here."
Rossetti concluded that AOL was discriminating against Spanish speakers, and he took his complaint to the American Civil Liberties Union. He then posted messages, in English, to several Grandstand folders asking other members to join his fight.
But his messages were erased by AOL monitors as soon as they were written. "It was a cat-and-mouse game. I went through six areas in the forum, and they were all erased," he said. "I quickly found that I wasn't the only one. They were also doing it to others. All of a sudden, all of the messages read, 'Hey, where did my message go?'"
The Mexican American Legal Defense Fund is also still suspicious of AOL's behavior. The organization has tried to contact representatives of the online service but said it has gotten no reply.
"We will continue to call them until we get a response," said Martha Jimenez, regional counsel for the organization. "Ideally, we want to meet with the people who make decisions at America Online. It's mind-boggling that they could made a decision like this without anyone raising the concern of how many people this would affect, and that's scary."