The follwoing article appeared in the 22 August, 1999 issue of The Sunday Business Post:
Censorship of Irish links on world's biggest internet provider
By Anton McCabe
America On Line (AOL), the world's biggest internet provider, has banned the word `Saoirse' from a screen name for "administrative reasons" and possibly becasue it was a `cuss word'. AOL, which has 15 million subscribers in the US alone, has faced increasing complaints about censorship of Irish-linked material.
Lee M Feerick, who was refused permission to use the word `Saoirse' in her screen name, was told by an AOL representative that AOL needed the word. One employee advised her to get a lawyer "since AOL won't do a blessed thing unless a lawsuit is involved". An anonymous spokesperson in the legal department told her that they would not tell her or anyone else why, but that they might talk to a lawyer if she hired one.
Approximately 40 American subscribers she has contacted have been denied permission to use Saoirse in screen-names. One has by deliberately misspelling it.
Last winter AOL closed its `Irish Heritage' discussion forum for 17 days. During this period, the archives of discussions, normally kept for several years, were deleted.
Under AOL's `Terms Of Service' members promise not to "harass, threaten, embarrass or do anything else to another member that is unwanted". There is concern that alleged transgressions are reported to AOL officials by other participants, whose identity is not revealed to the accused. Three such violations may result in the suspension or termination of an account. Termination of an account deprives the individual of access to their e-mail. In the US, given AOL's market dominance this can also deprive them of access to discussion on the internet.
Arbitrary removal of postings is another complaint. Karen Landow, press officer for Roberts Reinhart publishers, says that no reason has been given for pulling a number of the company's postings from the `Irish Politics' board. These all related to Sean McPhilemy's book `The Committee'.
Landow said that when she has complained on a number of occasions, she has received a generic form letter, and rarely anything addressing the specific issue about which she has written.
The New York Times quotes Andrew L Shapiro, a Fellow at New York University Law School. "We've moved distressingly close to the model that the Internet was supposed to replace, which is a couple of big companies having a disproportionate amount of control over the information market".
Similar difficulties do not seem to exist with AOL in Europe. When The Sunday Business Post spoke to a rep in its Irish office, we were told that `Saoirse' was already in use, but that any variant was perfectly acceptable.
In the latest issue of The Irish Voice (Wed., Aug. 25, - Tues, Aug. 31, 1999, p.16), jounalist Jack Flynn brilliantly exposed and dissected America Online's naked lies with regards to the Internet provider's censorious curtailing of the Irish language:
AOL Drops the Ball - Again (Irish Voice, Wed., Aug. 25, - Tues, Aug.31, 1999, p.16) edited by Jack Flynn
HERE we go again. First, America Online was accused of pulling nationalist posts on message boards and terminating their accounts without due cause. They did a terrible job spinning that one, doing a number on their reputation in the process.
Now AOL is claiming that the reason over 40 subscribers were denied the right to incorporate the word "saoirse" -- the Gaelic word for freedom - into their screen names is because the second third and fourth letters, (aoi) of the word could be confused for AOL, especially if written in caps.
I know, I know, it's crazy. There hasn't been the same uproar from AOL members as there was last December when the message boards were closed -- probably because everyone's laughing so hard at the service provider's comical explanation.
If this is really AOL's excuse for not allowing "saoirse" to be used as a screen name, it speaks volumes about the service provider's regard for the intellectual ability of its 15 million users. Simple rules of thumb: no, you didn't win that dream vacation, no, nobody's doing to give away cars for free and no, you can't make millions working at home.
Apparently, our European brethren are considerably brighter than their American counterparts when it comes to protecting themselves from such scams. AOL-UK has no ban on the word saoirse in screen names and even has a number of subsribers who use it as their handle.
Perhaps AOL should consider giving up this ridiculous charade, admit their mistake and allow people the freedom to use saoirse however they please.
Posted on Saturday, September 11, 1999 - 01:44 pm:
AOL Says: No Saoirse for You! by Jack Flynn (Irish Voice, Wed., Sept.1 - Tues., Sept.7; p.14)
AT the risk of turning America Online's mistreatment of its Irish subscribers into a weekly feature in this space, two more instances of the Internet provider's dispicable behavior toward some of its members have emerged in the past week. Amazing as it may seem, AOL continues to harass its Irish members for no apparent reason.
The first story comes from a reader in Philadelphia, who told the Irish Voice that she was given a Terms of Service violation for e-mailing the Sunday Business Post's recent piece about AOL's comical "ban" on the word saoirse to some friends.
Several hours after sending a copy to a number of AOL buddies, the reader (who preferred to remain anonymous for fear of having her account revoked) was knocked offline by the service provider, along with a terse message saying to call them immediately.
A friend of the Philadelphia reader had sent a copy of the e-mail to AOL, along with a note asking them if the allegations were true. In response, the reader was told upon calling that her account received a TOS violation for sending unwanted e-mails to AOL users, a practice more commonly known as spamming.
The only people who received the e-mail were friends of the reader, but AOL decided it was a spamming violation anyway. The service provider also responded to the person who sent the story, claiming that the Sunday Business Post piece was a hoax and that saoirse was perfectly acceptable as a screen name, none of which, apparently is true.
"It's all so absurd that I don't know what to think," the Philadelphia reader said. "This has really gotten me angry. This is so stupid. I can't believe that they're doing this."
In a second and separate incident, a subscriber claimed that an AOL representative forced the user to remove the word saoirse from their profile or their account would be revoked. If you remember, last week's story concerned the ban on saoirse as a screen name, with some lame excuse from AOL, about the letters "aoi" in tandem possible confusing other users.
Now all of a sudden, AOL is telling people to keep saoirse out of their profiles, an obvious indication that they are indeed taking issue with the Gaelic word for freedom. Over 50 AOL users (including your colmnist) have the word saoirse incorporated into their member profile; I guess we'll just have to wait and see if any of us have AOL accounts next week.
In December, when the Irish political boards were shut down, one had to be a bit skeptical of the claims that AOL was discriminating against its Irish membership, simply because the idea seemed to make so little sense. But as the complaints continue to pile up, it appears more and more that there is a significant amount of merit to that argument. The natural question, then, is this: what does AOL have to say about all these slurs against them?
For the second straight week, however, the Irish Voice has not been able to get a response from AOL. Why? Because AOL spokesmen have refused to answer numerous requests for information. It's hard to believe that AOL has a leg to stand on, when its corporate shills don't even have the ability to answer questions from the press.