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.”

This last prohibition became a real source of contention. Vigilante members resorted to mimicry, adopting names like CAT John for the sake of civilian policing. They wanted to administer online warnings of their own, with authority. Most AOL members didn’t take kindly to this sort of horseplay. Neither did members of the CAT Team. Sometimes we canceled such accounts on the spot, only to see them activated again once the cowboy called in and got a stern talking-to.

We mostly left the job of explaining infractions to people on the CAT Team, who delivered the sermon while we sat in silence in our pods, reading complaints. In a pinch, we could always recite the Terms of Service, and we were told to stick by it. These were not personal judgments, after all.

Try telling that to NGGERHATER or THROATSLITR.

Through online chat, people test out their most secret impulses. The segmentation of rooms and sites allows them to find one another like rapists in a prison. Just as playing Dungeons & Dragons doesn’t turn a kid into a wizard, pretending to be a homicidal maniac online doesn’t make a man a killer. But determining what it does make him is one of the biggest ethical dilemmas facing modern society.

The novelty quickly wore off of even the most unexpected combinations of words in member profiles, like “snatch fangs.” Hobbies: “I like a good orange up my ass.” Quote: “I’ll f:u:c:k for a buck and do something strange for some change.” Quote: “Stop changing your lipstick, my dick is starting to look like a rainbow.” Quote: “You could drive a truck through my ass crack.” The same lines appeared in thousands of profiles, the lack of originality making the task even bleaker. Hobbies: “k-9 sex, violent sex, bondage, anal, anything I’m a sub and I could be dominant too, if you are a sub email me with a fantasy and a slutty pic and I will respond to all I will cyber for anyone who can make me wet.” Over and over and over.

Online, people write what they wish they could say to a stranger at a club. They slip the shackle of accountability, set free by a box of unsigned words. They give themselves character traits created by the illusion that this kind of behavior can be carried over into real life without serious consequences. These online provocateurs would remain safe, if only their activities stayed in the realm of make-believe.

But they don’t.

Occasionally we received a letter via snail mail, like the following, postmarked from Texas on April 21, 1997:

“Dear American Online,

“Your service that you provide mostly chat rooms is really bad. For one people get scammed, people get raped, people get their lives ruined. Your chat rooms destroyed my life and my marriage. I am broke, getting divorced and am very depressed. I may need professional help and I may never get my life together again.”

Some of the mail we received contained descriptions of decapitation and the sexual violence that would be done to our lifeless bodies if we didn’t reinstate the account, indicating that some members don’t realize their actual identities are attached to their names. All we had to do was look up an account to get the address, name, and phone number of the author.

We were contractually bound to resist using member information. One day a guy from Member Saves, with bumper stickers on his wheelchair and an angel face, could not fight the temptation. A terrified member complained that someone had announced her home address in a chat room. She turned in his screen name, and when management brought up his account, marked “employee,” they called him to the boss’s office on the spot. By then personal effects were not permitted in pods, so there was no reason for him to return to the call floor. He was gone within minutes.

We received e-mail from parents every day. “You can imagine my son’s surprise,” I remember one woman writing, “when he searched on basketball and the first profile up had the sentence, ‘If I knew it was gonna be that kinda party I woulda sticked my dick in the mashed potatoes.’ ”

Some people like to cocoon themselves in plastic wrap to crap and screw. Some fathers barter their daughters in exchange for the children of other men. Some women are looking to serve cocktails on their hands and knees at Super Bowl parties, butt plug in place. All of this became the business of our little crew.

One supervisor erred on the side of caution, advising us to flag monikers as jumbled and innocuous as Smotpoker and Fuhq. Ours was not just a struggle against unruly impulses and desires. Names, once they were called to our attention, were picked apart for hidden violations.

My coworker Samantha, married to a cop, was truly stunned by some of what she saw. She stumbled across the Rubber Nun one sunny afternoon, introducing us all to a world of latex habits, gas masks, and torture devices. Felching, which includes two cardinal sins of online sex references, asses and cum, not to mention drinking straws, really knocked her for a loop. Her liberal cancellation of accounts necessitated further training for the team.

Erika quickly became our leader. She showed up for work every day wearing clothes embroidered with the company logo, ecstatic at the opportunity to work for America Online. She spent hours chatting with other people who had autistic children or loved Def Leppard, and she followed the company line. AOL provided a lot of incentive to do so, given the high rate of promotion. Fellow trainees with nose rings and shaggy hair turned into clean-cut corporate executives as soon as the keys to the new Jeep hit their palms.

Juan had a fuzzy moustache, a blond girlfriend, and a yellow Camaro. He didn’t take the job too seriously; he was just tired of working the oil rig. He did what he had to do and didn’t get too involved in disputes with people furious over the loss of their online identity.

When DrEnema was warned for his name, we engaged in a battle that lasted several days. He was an actual doctor and stated in his profile that he administered “sadistic enemas to men, women, and children.” We couldn’t have a kid going into this guy’s office for a stubbed toe, leaving with a butt full of coffee beans. Cases like his blurred the border between fantasy and reality. His was not the only one.

“There is a simple explanation for why this happens,” says a supervisor at America Online who does not wish to be identified. “People are able to completely transcend what they are in real life and live a different life entirely.

“This is such a paradoxical time right now. It is the age of information and the age of misinformation. There was a time when people thought that something printed in a newspaper must be true. It’s not like that online, but it almost is. You go through an urge when you see a screen name and a profile and you immediately think, oh, it must be true, but then you realize that it’s just words, and that anybody can say anything at all.”

Ours was one team at America Online, but there are others, monitoring violations in e-mail, on member Web sites, and throughout the company’s staple, instant messages. America Online is no longer a string of call centers against lonely backdrops like the Sandia Mountains. AOL/Time Warner, setting up shop now in New York City, has access to nearly every line of communication in and out of our homes.

The gravity and absurdity of the situation became clear when, having answered every complaint in the box, I took a call. A woman frantically explained her catastrophe. Her young son had been chatting online, and when she went to get him for dinner, she found his room empty. A last instant message was posted on the screen: “See you soon, can’t wait.” She begged me for the name and address of the person behind the dangling screen name. I had the information right in front of me, but I couldn’t give it to her.

My heart flipped in my chest. What had started as a job wide with possibilities had narrowed to a pinhole through which I could see the messy corners and anguished moments of so many ordinary lives. I had the power to protect her, or at least to help—a mission my employer had made clear. Yet here the interests of customer and corporation collided.


I put her on hold and sought the supervisor’s advice. There were no options. Only a subpoena warranted release of that name. According to the rules, he was right. And I had to tell her, in turn, as firmly as I could, that I could be of no assistance in the matter. She grew tired of pleading and slammed the phone back in the cradle. I like to believe her child came waltzing home, arms full of roses, within moments of that call. I like to believe it.

Even now, I understand that America Online is no more responsible for a stranger getting in than the phone company is when a latchkey kid answers a call from the creep across the street. But if there is anything more alluring to a developing mind than a blank slate on which to etch the symbols of adulthood, I can’t imagine what it is.

I left AOL within days of that call, unable to shake what I’d learned: From a strictly evolutionary perspective, the eggs that hatch online, in the imagination, grow wings and claws behind the closed doors of real houses.

*Names have been changed.