Irish controversy dogs America Online

America Online Inc. has reopened almost two dozen Irish Heritage message boards that it shut down in December -- setting off an international cyber controversy.

AOL closed 23 Irish Heritage discussion groups on Dec. 11, saying that the political forums had included profanity and personal attacks, which are banned under its terms of service. Those closures inadvertently landed the world's largest online service in the midst of the turbulent debate over Irish independence -- and left some AOL users and Irish nationalists crying discrimination.

Following the closures, some Irish nationalists accused AOL of pandering to British citizens in an attempt to sign up more subscribers for AOL's British unit. Irish People, an Irish nationalist newspaper criticised AOL's actions as "politically motivated, intended to extinguish a growing firestorm of pro-republican news and comment in the Forum."

As if that weren't enough, the Irish-American users who flocked to AOL UK found that their Irish-language posts were temporarily banned. The ban affected only AOL UK, and not the U.S. AOL service -- a situation which further confused some Irish-American users. Several users, and Irish People, again accused AOL of discrimination.

AOL representatives responded that AOL UK was simply overwhelmed by the sudden influx of Irish-speaking users that followed the closure of the Irish Heritage forums, and disallowed Irish-language posts until an Irish-speaking consultant could be hired to deal with any possible complaints. "There needs to be somebody who knows what's being posted, to react to member complaints and respond to terms-of-service violations," said AOL spokesman Jim Whitney. "In that situation they didn't have the ability to evaluate posts, if they had needed to."

The Irish Heritage discussion groups reappeared Dec. 28, along with a note from an AOL manager urging users to "make this a more amiable place where any person, regardless of faction, can openly discuss political issues and current events." AOL's terms of service prohibit "strong vulgar language, crude or explicit sexual references, hate speech, etc.," which can be punished by cancelling the user's account.

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