Internet

AOL investigating Navy discharge

The online service is looking into the circumstances around the dismissal of a U.S. Navy sailor on grounds that he said he is gay in his member profile.

America Online (AOL) executives said today they are investigating the circumstances surrounding the dismissal of a U.S. Navy sailor on grounds that he allegedly admitted in his AOL member profile that he is gay.

AOL said in a statement released today, "We are investigating the Navy situation and we feel confident that our privacy policy was followed."

AOL also sent a letter to all its customer representatives "reinforcing the importance of strict adherence to our privacy policy," the company said.

AOL spokeswoman Tricia Primrose declined to comment more specifically about the investigation, but she reiterated AOL's policy against divulging member information.

"When you join the AOL team as a customer service representative, part of the training, part of the day-to-day work is all based on the hard and fast policy regarding privacy of member information," she said.

As previously reported, the case has drawn international publicity not only because it focuses on the military's controversial "don't ask, don't tell" policy regarding gays in the military, but also because it highlights issues surrounding privacy online.

A Navy investigator said in sworn testimony that an AOL customer representative gave him the name and home state of an AOL member whose online profile listed the word "gay" under "marital status."

In fact, Timothy McVeigh (no relation to the Timothy McVeigh convicted of the Oklahoma City bombing), a 17-year veteran, says the profile does not prove he is gay and cites other profiles in which members claim to be many things they are not.

But if the customer service representative did release that information to the Navy investigator, who says in the testimony that he did not identify himself as such, he violated privacy rules that AOL considers to be "the bedrock of our customer service philosophy."

"We're trying to find out as much information as possible. It's upsetting that the Navy may have circumvented the established channels to enable law enforcement with legitimate legal needs to get information about our members," Primrose said.

According to its policy, AOL will only release customer information when presented with a subpoena, search warrant, or court order.

Today the Center for Democracy and Technology reiterated its opinion that the Navy possibly broke the law when it asked the customer service representative, only identified as "Owen," about McVeigh's identity.

It also accuses the Navy of violating the "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

McVeigh, 36, is slated to be honorably discharged at midnight on Thursday.

While the media attention his case has drawn has helped bring the story to the public's attention, it has done nothing so far to affect the discharge, said Kirk Childress, staff attorney with the Service Members Legal Defense Network, an organization set up to fight the military's policy toward homosexuals. The group is helping to defend McVeigh.

"We have heard nothing from the secretary's office about whether they're even willing to consider the issue," he said.