Terms of Service

Sweaty Scenes From the Life of an AOL Censor

"Pussy" became a real problem for us.

We were supposed to monitor screen names and profiles for vulgar content at America Online. Four of us shared this position, warning members and even canceling their accounts for violating the company's Terms of Service (TOS).

In AOL's campaign to keep the Web safe for surburbia, we stood as the first line of defense. This month, the Florida Supreme Court ruled the corporation couldn't be held accountable for its customers' behavior, but we took that responsibility to heart. Or at least, modestly, to the bank.

There in the Albuquerque foothills, we toiled in a row of gray pods like the hundreds of others lining the call center. Photographs of nature scenes and slogans like "There is no 'I' in Team" dotted the walls. Our supervisors sat along the perimeter in open cubicles. When I began in 1997, the building was sparsely populated and the low partitions separating one space from the next were decorated with personal effects. NASCAR images were popular among the Techies, who showed each other up with their ever increasing gigabytes of memory and knowledge of technology. The Member Saves, a group that offered free months of service to corral customers who wanted out, were mostly college students and had pictures of their dogs, friends, and Pamela Anderson. Their boyfriends came at lunch to pick them up in ragtops with country or hip-hop blaring, speeding off for a punctual hour at Arby's or one of the other fast-food joints along the strip nearby.

I landed with the Community Action Team—the CAT Team, we called it— through a twist of post-college whimsy. On the drive from Brooklyn to California, I broke down in New Mexico and ended up clerking at a chain bookstore—a job I soon ditched for glamour and $7 an hour at AOL's new center. The group was an eclectic bunch of fetishists and people looking to start over. In our section, pictures of Tupac Shakur and injured Asian women filled the pods. A husband and wife, who moonlighted as a slave-dominatrix team, worked together. She had jet black hair and a birdlike face and was as tiny as he was tremendous. Both were pierced, tattooed, and gruff in tight black leather. They tried to recruit new slaves once workers fell into social patterns and began spending time in bars downtown. Nobody made enough money to buy a spanking.

After two days of schooling, four of us were pulled from the class to form a minicorps, TOS Names/Profiles. We would be the ones canceling accounts the rest of the CAT Team would later reinstate, except in cases of severe violation of AOL's Terms of Service. A corporate trainer flew in from the Virginia headquarters to teach us how to define vulgarity. He took us out to lunch and acted like we were very lucky and special to have been chosen. Then he reminded us we were never to use our own judgment when determining what crossed the line.

We worked together until we came to a common understanding of the TOS, furnished by the company along with a stack of worksheets. He took us, still dazed by the royal treatment, into a conference room and told us to circle the vulgar names. I chose only a few while Samantha* picked practically all of them. Erika circled about half the page and made marks next to a few questionable entries. Juan circled a bunch, too.

Some cases were clear-cut and some were simply a matter of context—like "liquor in the front and poker in the rear."

It turns out there are a lot of little old ladies in the world who adore their feline friends. So they give themselves a name like Silkpussy and join a cat lover's chat room, then act shocked and sickened when they get warned for having a dirty name. Sometimes "pussy" was vulgar and sometimes not. What mattered was motivation. You could have a chink in your armor but not in your bed, and big balls, as long as your profile didn't include descriptions of having them licked, sucked, or fondled.

Screen names and profiles serve as the primary methods by which strangers become acquainted. The sudden appearance of JewKiller in a chat room is akin to spotting a bicep tattooed with a swastika. Both are announcements of intent. But anonymity emboldens people who would never introduce themselves this way at a job interview or on a first date, unless they happened to meet at a Klan rally.

So it is with AOL profiles, which are like the telephone booths in which Clark Kent becomes Superman. A 400-pounder with a beard could never otherwise pass himself off as a 14-year-old girl.

Our job was to read the complaints that filled the TOS mailbox. We were aided in the endeavor by do-gooders who sometimes patrolled all night, producing hundreds of handles and profiles that might violate the rules.

According to the Terms of Service, this included names and profiles that were "unlawful, threatening, abusive, harassing, defamatory, libelous, deceptive, fraudulent, invasive of another's privacy, tortious" or contained "explicit or graphic descriptions or accounts of sexual acts (including but not limited to sexual language of a violent or threatening nature directed at another individual or group of individuals)." The rules further forbid any ID or profile that "victimizes, harasses, degrades, or intimidates an individual or group of individuals on the basis of religion, gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, age, or disability." The same went for a handle that "infringes on any patent, trademark, trade secret, copyright, right of publicity, or other proprietary right of any party or impersonates any person or entity, including any employee or representative of America Online."

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