AOL Mind Police Running Scared (and Sloppy)
Date: Sat, 2 Dec 95 01:23:52 -0800
From: Peter Langston <psl>
Subject: AOL Mind Police Running Scared (and Sloppy)
Forwarded-by: firstname.lastname@example.org (Keith Bostic)
Forwarded-by: Chuck Yerkes <Chuck@Yerkes.com>
From: David HM Spector <email@example.com>
Didn't we get over this kind of thing as a culture sometime after Queen
Victoria died..? I wonder what they do in the "recipes" chat room on AOL
-- Perhaps "Grilled Chicken Hooters with shitakke mushrooms & curry sauce?"
Anyone for "Sliced Turkey Jugs with noodle stuffing?"
AOL alters rules, allows `breast'
BY RICHARD A. KNOX
In an effort to clean up cyberspace, the nation's largest computer on-line
service last week declared the word ``breast'' taboo -- thereby making it
impossible for breast cancer patients to contact one another for information
An America Online spokeswoman said Thursday the action had been ``an error''
and promised to correct the problem within 24 hours and provide affected
subscribers with five free hours of on-line time. The company's action came
after several days of irate on-line protests by outraged breast cancer
patients about the company's decision to put ``breast'' on its list of
``This is outrageous and potentially life-threatening,'' wrote a woman who
uses the ``screen name'' Renna S. to fellow users of America Online's breast
cancer bulletin board. ``
``Give us a break!'' added MaryMarvin. ``Must we have `hooter cancer
Another woman, who identifies herself as ``A 10 Lady,'' wondered ``if
they've purged the penile cancer files too.'' AOL spokeswoman Pam McGraw
said the company's list of ``vulgar'' terms ``does not include any other
words that could be misconstrued,'' such as ``body parts that could be used
in medical diagnoses.''
McGraw refused to provide any examples from the list of vulgar terms. She
said ``breast'' will henceforth be permitted ``as long as it is used in an
The problem came to light when a breast cancer survivor who goes by the
screen name of MiaBella found that her personal ``member profile'' had been
deleted by AOL. Users can create such profiles as a way of identifying
themselves and their interests. Member profiles enable AOL users to contact
others with similar interests while remaining anonymous.
When MiaBella tried to create a new member profile, identifying herself as a
breast cancer survivor, AOL flashed her a message that she could not use
``vulgar'' words. She then discovered that the company had deleted the
member profiles of all users who had used the word ``breast'' in describing
Several AOL customers noted that this is the second time in six months that
the on-line service has disrupted communication among breast cancer
survivors by banning the word ``breast.'' Last summer, the offending word
was prohibited as an identifier of a so-called ``chat room,'' a feature that
permits groups of users to exchange views in ``real time.''
At that time a flurry of protests directed at AOL chief executive Steve Case
caused the company to permit ``breast'' as a chat room identifier. The
company repetition of the proscription led one exasperated customer to
write: ``Honestly, AOL, we have better things to do with our time, like
helping and encouraging each other. We will not stand for this ridiculous
stupidity every six months!''
Although the situation has its inane aspects, an American Cancer Society
official pointed out last night that on-line services should be aware of the
importance of their networks to patients who rely on them for information
and support. The AOL's cancer bulletin boards are located under a heading
called ``American Cancer Society.''
``There are thousands of women who are benefiting from forums like this,''
said Barbara LeStage, a Massachusetts woman who is on the executive
committee of the American Cancer Society, and who recently received a
diagnosis of breast cancer herself.
Another disturbing implication of the episode, LeStage said, is the thinking
that underlay AOL's decision to declare ``breast'' a vulgar term.
``We have spent so many years trying to teach women that breast cancer is
not something to be ashamed of and they need to be able to talk about,'' she
said. ``This is how we can get them to go their physicians when it is still
in an early stage.
``I don't have any problem with AOL trying to keep dirty words off their
service,'' she added. ``But I don't consider `breast' to be a dirty word. If
you have people who see it as dirty, for whatever reason, rather than as an
everyday term, then this is going to continue to happen.''
© 1995 Peter Langston