Poets on AOL
Date: Fri, 1 Mar 96 13:05:03 -0800
From: Peter Langston <psl>
Subject: Poets on AOL
Forwarded-by: firstname.lastname@example.org (Keith Bostic)
Forwarded-by: Phil Agre <email@example.com>
From: Jordanne <firstname.lastname@example.org>
P.O. Box 33063
The Communications Decency Act is now law. If you use on-line services, it
is going to affect you, just as it affected a brilliant young poet who sought
freedom in the USA but found her freedoms seriously compromised by the Act.
THE COMMUNICATIONS DECENCY ACT
Who Stands to Lose ?
When Isa Sadiq fled the brutality and oppression of Somalia and came
to the United States seeking political asylum, she never dreamed that she
would encounter some of the same restrictions here. But she did.
A beautiful and talented twenty-year-old, Isa had studied abroad.
As a poet, growing up in a culture of repression, she longed for the
freedom of expression she would find in the United States. She lived in
various parts of the middle East before she came to the U.S. and applied
for political asylum. She settled in Minneapolis and sought out poets
and places where she could send her poetry. One of the first places she
tried was America On Line. Isa had got a free disk in a computer magazine
and so, armed with her ten free hours, she popped the disk in her a: drive
and was "wired" into America.
Among the cyberscape lush with chatrooms, data bases, and online
magazines, Isa found, tucked away under 8 layers of cyberthread, the
Poetry Corner. There she found poems posted by online poets, critiques,
posts of comments and afterthoughts. The tone was welcoming, friendly.
Isa loved the freedom she saw represented in those poems, and she posted
one of her own. In a few days, she went back to Poetry Corner and
discovered that other poets had read her poem and had left encouraging
Isa's spirits soared. Young, and in the prime of her sexual
awareness, she posted her poems of eroticism and sexual exploration. She
posted too, poems of sadness, depression and exile. Still other poems
explored the language of addiction and compulsion. Over and over again
she posted and received overwhelmingly positive notices from her fellow
online poets. She made friends there and became a cherished part of this
tightlyknit on line community of poets.
Things were idyllic for a year. Isa and the other poets went about
the business of writing and posting and criticizing poems in relative
harmony. But in November of 1995, pressure was applied to America On
Line CEO Steve Case, by rightwing fundamentalists. They emphasized that
all language inappropriate for children had to be taken off AOL bulletin
boards. Self proclaimed right-wing activist, Diana Leach vowed to make
AOL "God's own server" and to bring AOL's TOS (terms of service)
regulations to the Internet.
Overnight things changed for Isa and the other poets in the Poetry
Corner. Dozens of poems which were there one evening, were gone the next
morning. Approximately a third of the online poets received Terms of
Service (TOS) violations. One poet actually received sixteen violations
that day. Suddenly poems were pulled off the boards for using the word
"breast." Poems which contained no questionable words at all were pulled
for their content. And some poems were deleted for no discernible reason
At the same time, an online breast cancer support group found
themselves suddenly unable to use the word "breast" to talk about their
disease. The systems operator of the Atheist bulletin boards, abruptly
had a new supervisor who reportedly was a retired Baptist minister. The
postings by the atheists were disappearing with the same regularity as
that of the poets. When questioned by one of the leaders of the atheist
group, the supervisor replied that he saw no conflict with his Baptist
orientation and his new job as supervisor over the atheist boards.
In frustration, the poets and the atheists, each without knowing of
the tribulations of the other, wrote to Steve Case explaining that they
could not voice their opinions or post their poems with AOL practicing
this kind of censorship. No answer. Many of the poets and atheists wrote
over and over again. The response was usually the same. None. Two poets
did get identical form letter responses from a vice president, though
their questions were very different. The form letter was basically a
"nonanswer" which thanked them for their letters and stated that AOL was
"looking into it."
In desperation, the poets formed Creative Coalition on AOL, (CCA),
a group born out of the need of the poets to have AOL hear their concerns.
CCA quickly formed a board, drew up bylaws, and began to tell their story
to the media, and to fellow writers on the internet. As you might expect,
responses were mixed. Some contacts expressed their thoughts that AOL
was private industry and could do as it pleased. If the poets did not
like it, they could go elsewhere. Others thought, as the poets did, that
since AOL bills itself as "an online community, a city larger than Los
Angeles," that first amendment rights ought to extend to the inhabitants
of that "city." Sympathetic webmasters posted the poems that AOL had
deleted, and told the story of the poets' struggles to share their poems.
Of course censorship is not new to poets. Allen Ginsberg, Jack
Kerouac, and a long list of other beat poets were banned from sharing
their work in the 50's and 60's. Isa Sadiq thought America had come some
distance since then, and was sad to find out we had not. She stated, "it
seems ironic to me, that a service which names itself after America, calls
itself 'America' On Line, has sought to take away the first amendment
rights of its consumers." She further added, "we plan to fight this all
the way to the Supreme Court if we have to. Steve Case should know that
poets are not willing to sit in the shadows and be quiet. That is why we
Isa and the other poets sent a barrage of mail to America On Line
requesting that the Poetry Corner come under "parental control". This
means that if parents do not want their children reading online poetry,
they could block access. This feature could allow the poets to continue
uncensored, while America's children would be "safe" from their poems.
The poets received no answer from AOL management, but in early January,
all areas of AOL except the areas specifically for children, came under
parental control with the push of a button. Still, the censorship of
poems and postings did not abate.
CCA and the poets also contend that TOS guidelines are not
administered fairly, that they and the atheists have been sorted out for
"special" discrimination. Upon investigation, this seems true. The poets
have pages of poems which were pulled from the boards for using the word
"breast" or "sex" while in the chat rooms, one sees the words "cock,"
"fuck" and "pussy" regularly, with no consequences to the user of those
words. Often the users of those words are children, or worse, are child
predators looking for cybersex. When asked about this seemingly unfair
application of the TOS rules, AOL said, "we depend upon our subscribers
to report offenses when they see them. Room guides drop into chat rooms
unannounced to discourage the use of obscenity."
To test this assertion, this reporter stopped in to chat rooms every
night for nearly a month. In that time, I saw one, count 'em, ONE guide.
I saw every objectionable word imaginable, and numerous comeons for online
sex. I guess the "subscribers" are not working hard enough.
To clarify the issues, the poets asked Steve Case, and their bulletin
board systems operator, who goes by the screenname THopeB, for a list of
the objectionable words which they were not supposed to use on AOL. It
seemed a reasonable request. They were told that no such list existed.
However, this reporter obtained a chatlog of a roomful of
guidesintraining. In this chatlog a whole list of banned words is
exposed. In fact, the guidestobe actually use those words in conversation
with one another, and then laugh about it. Some of the words make one
wonder, "hot, wet, wild," are not thought of as objectionable by most
people. In fact, AOL uses those very words to draw people into looking
at it's own photos of Anna Nichole Smith. But just try using them in a
poem, of course no one will tell you beforehand that you may not use them.
So, poems are still being pulled with amazing regularity. And poets still
have no guidelines, despite their requests.
In the past few days, Congress and the President have passed
legislation which makes "indecent material" illegal anywhere on the net.
Those who violate this provision are subject to up to $250,000 fine and
2 years in jail. The American Civil Liberties Union filed suit to obtain
an injunction and to contest the constitutionality of the "indecency
clause" of the Telecom legislation. In an ironic twist, the ACLU, who
enjoys a "free speech" area on AOL, offered all AOL poets and writers
space on their bulletin boards to post writings and discussions. They
generously opened up several folders for the poets and screenwriters who
wish to post there without censorship. As this text is written, the
internet enjoys a temporary injunction protecting its freedom of speech.
But who knows how long it will last? Diana Leach has stated, "we want
the whole internet to adopt the same standards as AOL." If she and other
fundamentalists get their way, they will be deciding for the entire
internet, as they did for AOL, what is "decent" and what is not. Get
ready. They did it to Isa. And they are coming to a server near you.
To join CCA send e-mail request to CCA1996@aol.com. Membership is free.
© 1996 Peter Langston