Hate may be only a four-letter word, but it can be damned hard to define. Ask America Online, a company recently caught with its proverbial pants down by gay and civil-rights activists.
The NationalGayLobby.org is calling for a national boycott of AOL and its advertisers starting Nov. 15, because, it says, the Internet giant is inconsistent with its policies on sexual and hate speech in its user profiles. That is, critics charge, AOL is censoring the words gay members use to describe themselves online, but leaving alone anti-gay comments from other users. It's also not forcing users to delete racist profiles that use words like nigger and kike.
Earlier this month, a gay user in Texas told the ACLU that AOL had deleted his profile wherein he described himself as a "submissive bottom." However, John Aravosis of the Internet consulting firm Wired Strategies, along with Hatewatch.org, found that AOL allowed to stand such delicate phrases as "I kill fags," "I love cold beer and hate fags" and various other "faggot" and racist epithets.
David Goldman, of Hatewatch.org, says AOL made this bed when it declared in its guidelines that "hate speech is never allowed" anywhere on its service. But, he added, "AOL shunted off responsibility of policing their site to users." That is, the company said it didn't plan to conduct an investigation of its hate content, but would pursue specific complaints as users logged them.
In so doing, Goldman said, AOL created a protective Catch-22 for itself. That is, certain distasteful words -- like nigger and kike -- are technically banned.
Thus, if they're entered as keywords, the user gets a banned-word box, instead of a list of profiles where the offensive words appear, leaving the problem difficult for hate monitors to investigate. And, he added, the imbroglio revealed that while those racist words are banned, words like faggot are not.
"What it boils down to is that Hatewatch has always called for consistent, well-thought-out terms of service and application of AOL when it comes to hate material," Goldman said. "From our vantage point, it's better to have no policy about hate material than to have a policy enforced inconsistently."
Goldman says AOL's selective application of its policy, in effect, gives "tacit approval to bigotry on their service." For instance, Hatewatch and other civil-rights groups asked AOL in 1994 to apply its policy to a Texas Ku Klux Klan site posted on an AOL domain. Wendy Goldberg of AOL replied that the content did not violate the terms of service. Thus, Goldman said, "this gave an unfortunate and incredibly problematic conveyance from AOL that the KKK is merely a white civil rights organization, not a hate site."
But don't mistake Goldman as being pro-censorship. Hatewatch.org actually promotes using bigoted Web sites as educational tools, and includes interviews with controversial figures such as Matt Hale of the World Church of the Creator and former KKK wizard David Duke on its own site. What he objects to is a company -- especially one with the power and reach of AOL -- developing a supposed anti-hate policy and then enforcing it discriminately.
"If they want to allow hate speech on their service, that's their decision, but make a choice and be consistent about it," he said.
He's got a point: Logic dictates that a policy is only as good as its application -- and AOL's selective use of this one might say something about its own biases and priorities. (You might recall AOL's surrender of gay Navy officer Tim McVeigh's gay user info to a military investigator, which got him dismissed. You'd think that one might have caused a full-scale boycott of AOL by the gay community.)
AOL has agreed to meet with gay-rights groups to discuss the issue on Nov. 9. However, as of press time, it hadn't revealed the guest list or the agenda. Goldman said he hadn't yet been invited.
Meanwhile, a lesson here for all: Supporting online "hate" censorship might open a can that's hard to reclose.