America Online is downplaying expectations that a previously scheduled meeting with a gay rights group will address the controversy over its policies regarding hate speech. AOL is declining to commit to an agenda for the meeting and won't say who has been invited.
The meeting comes on the heels of claims that AOL arbitrarily enforces its rules regarding hate speech. Gay rights groups, the American Civil Liberties Union and an anti-hate speech organisation recently decried a move by AOL to delete a gay member's self-authored online profile because it included the phrase "submissive bottom."
AOL said the phrase violated the conditions of its "terms of service" (TOS) contract with subscribers that, among other things, prohibits sexually explicit language, as well as hate speech, from being entered on its system.
That action prompted Wired Strategies, an online watchdog group, and Hatewatch.org to investigate just how well AOL was enforcing its TOS. The groups found a hundred or more examples of profiles that contained anti-gay, anti-Jewish and anti-Christian messages.
AOL uses an automatic word filter to keep certain words from being published in its member profiles. But an examination of that word filter by MSNBC showed that while two of the most common racial slurs for African-Americans and Jews were not allowed, other racial slurs for other ethnic groups weren't blocked at all. Common pejoratives for gays and lesbians also aren't blocked by the AOL word filter.
Similar quirky "rules" allow some sexually explicit words to be entered in member profiles, while other words are blocked, MSNBC found. An AOL spokesman admitted that the filter wasn't perfect but said the company did the best that it could in addressing the issue.
The arbitrary nature of the word filter and AOL's apparent lack of enforcement on its hate speech policies inflamed the gay community. NationalGayLobby.org called for a full-scale boycott of AOL and its advertisers on November 15 if AOL hasn't sufficiently addressed the issue.
But late Monday word leaked out that AOL was, indeed, scheduled to meet with the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), a leading gay rights group. "The meeting has been scheduled for some time now ... before the recent controversy erupted," said Will Doherty, GLAAD's director of online community development.
Doherty also confirmed that although his organization has been invited, AOL has refused to say which other groups, if any, have been invited to the November 9 meeting. In addition, AOL has declined to set any particular agenda, he said.
AOL is downplaying the scheduled meeting, saying it's a regular meeting and not in response to the latest dust-up over its hate speech policies. "We're not going to, sort of, talk about the meetings we have with third parties," said Rich D'Amato, an AOL spokesman. "This is really sort of an ongoing process with many communities whose interests intersect with this new medium."
D'Amato declined to comment on why even GLAAD wasn't being informed about who was or wasn't going to be invited. I'm not going to tell you what we're telling other groups," D'Amato said. "I'm not going to characterize what we've told other groups. That's just not our practice." AOL's insistence on secrecy is confusing to groups that have dug in on the recent controversy.
"Most everyone involved in this case hasn't been invited to that meeting, so it's kind of hard to understand how its going to address any issues if it's a meeting with nobody there," said John Aravosis of Wired Strategies. "We're still waiting for invitations, and perhaps they got lost in the e-mail. But if AOL is serious about this issue and isn't just playing a publicity stunt, we're assuming we're going to be invited."
GLAAD will attend the meeting whether or not other groups are invited, but the hope is that it's a more inclusive meeting. "We at GLAAD feel AOL should invite community groups who have a present and historical concern with these issues, such as Wired Strategies, Hatewatch.org and PlanetOut, as well as GLAAD, to participate in the meeting," Doherty said.
Whatever AOL has in mind for the November 9 meeting, GLAAD and others hoping to attend are gearing up to make it a total referendum on a wide range of policies they believe the company has ignored for far too long. GLAAD's Doherty said the group's executive director will be addressing how AOL censors gay members' online chat content, in addition to the user profile and hate speech issues.
"This issue has exploded beyond user profiles and hate speech," Aravosis said. "It's now become an analysis of AOL's terms of service and whether they need to be junked and started anew."
The NationalGayLobby, which also hasn't been invited, is taking a harder line, saying that AOL's refusals are "bizarre at best and divisive on its face."