Dirty words on AOL? Not if AOL can help it. AOL has a long list of what it calls "conditionally and unconditionally vulgar words." But just try to get a copy of it. Even AOL employees are not supposed to give it to one another.

No wonder many user groups on America on Line have found AOL's Terms of Service (TOS) troublesome. The poets, the atheists, the screenwriters, the Zeitgeist enthusiasts, the 60-second Novelist fans, and others have voiced complaints to AOL about its censorship practices. The major complaint is that the Terms of Service are vague and open to a wide range of interpretations. Indeed, well-meaning people from all these forums have been censored and have received Terms of Service violations for postings which they, themselves thought were acceptable.

Part of the problem, probably the biggest part, is that America on Line will not tell its consumers what it deems acceptable and what it views as unacceptable. Nowhere online can the subscriber find a list of words which he may or may not use. Isa Sadiq, president of Creative Coalition on AOL, a group of poets fighting AOL censorship, states, "Many of our members have written to the AOL Terms of Service staff over a dozen times asking for a definition of what is acceptable language online and what is not. Each and every one of these queries has been ignored." So it is no surprise that when a poet posted a benign poem about a small child rocking on the porch in her mother's arms and used the word "breast" in it, the poem was deleted from the bulletin board. The poet wrote to the TOS department and asked why her poem was deleted. She received no reply. She wrote again and asked if her poem was deleted because she used the word "breast" and was told that "breast" is an acceptable word to use. Further, she was told that her poem had NOT been deleted, but many poets, including this reporter, noted that clearly it was there one day and gone the next.

In an attempt to figure out the TOS guidelines, another poet went to the AOL online dictionary and copied the definition of the "f" word. He then posted this definition on one of the bulletin boards. Much to his surprise his post was deleted and he received a TOS violation for posting AOL's own dictionary listing. The only way to figure out what you may and may not say on line, is to try it and see what happens. If you do it on a bulletin board you will find out within a day or two because your posting will be deleted if it violates TOS. However, if you use certain dirty words in a chat room you may get away with it for months before you get caught. AOL states, "we rely on our members to report TOS violations in Chat Rooms." With not enough of the volunteer "guides" to go around, and the members doing much of their own policing of the chat areas, it is no wonder that these AOL areas have a reputation among even liberal-thinking adults as "dens of filth and perversion."

One has to wonder why AOL is so secretive about its list of vulgar and TOSsable words. Certainly there is a list. But just try to get a copy of it. Even guides, who have access to the list, are cautioned not to share it with anyone, even each other.

The following is part of an online conversation held in a secret AOL guides-in-training meeting, in which the vulgarity guidelines are discussed and a list of unconditionally vulgar words is given. Guide is the experienced trainer, and the other initials represent the trainees. The text has been edited slightly to protect the identities of the participants and to eliminate extra spaces, repetitions, extra characters, and typing errors. Content remains virtually intact including grammatical and punctuation errors:

Guide: Since all interaction on American Online is in the form of words, it is to words we look to provide guidelines for the following "language" portion of the Terms of Service. The Vulgarity Guidelines are posted in the Policy and Procedure area. This same list is pointed to all the private staff areas online and updated as needed.... However, we are never to give this list out to anyone, even other staff unless we get an OK.

Why? How will this information hurt AOL?

Guide: The list is a guideline for you to use when considering whether to warn or not to warn. (A warning means a Terms of Service violation. Get 3 and you're out.) Words and topics on the list are categorized as Unconditionally Vulgar, conditionally vulgar and there are notes for specific words and topics. Have you all read and memorized that list?

SMW: yes

MJ: Fuck, yes!

LD: :o (look of surprise)

KC: wasn't it the first thing to do?

MJ: oh my God...I don't believe I just did that

SMW: my favorite part

RX: nice going, MJ

TM: well forget it.... Cause this is going to change all that!

SMW: trying to use or do every word

EX: LOL (laughing out loud)

Guide: VG GUIDELINES: Unconditionally Vulgar: The rather obvious items of vulgarity are listed as VULGAR. There are words that AOL considers Vulgar (which) are TOS violations regardless of the context. Some of these words Listed as VULGAR are topical in nature. That is you would warn if the topic is being discussed, not just the word being used. Also note that forms of a word can be warned for such as "I'm masturbating" or "do you masturbate?" And some racial slurs are always warnable. Some words\topics listed as always vulgar are: Blowjob, clitoris, cock, cocksucker, cornhole, cunnilingus, cunt, fellatio, feltching fuck, kike, masturbation, mutherfucker, nigger, rimjob, sodomy, shit, spic, tit, twat. Do you need me to define any of those terms for you?

JK: become a Guide and learn new nasty words ;-) (wink)

SMW: I need those all defined with pictures and videos please.

RX: snicker, sorry

Guide: sorry! I don't do graphics!

MN: Great-Grandmother Peggy says....

MN: I should ask you about feltching??? hiding behind mom

SB: Peggy, ummmm


Guide: Feltching is the act of sucking bodily fluids such as semen or urine through a straw.

LT: Well, they should know what it is if they are gonna warn for it....

Guide: slurp


LD: ewww!

SB: straw

MN: has the IM to defend herself.


SB: my sister did that :D (tongue hanging out)

SB: ROFL! (Rolling on floor laughing)

EX: :p~~~~~~ (using a straw)



AJ: Cornhole?????????

Guide: Cornhole the noun is a term for anus. as a verb it means the act of anal sex.

AJ: OK! Yuck!


MW: >) (furrowing brow)

Guide: but if it is used in the Quote "I am the great cornholio" its OK!

SMW: We teach that at our school, Feltching and rimming 101

DM: didn't know either poor guy

Guide: that is a quote from Beavis and Butthead!

SB: (I heard it long before B&B)

After reading this log, one has to wonder why, if AOL has such specific guidelines, they do not share them with their consumers. It is also interesting to note that the words which are looked upon as too vulgar to use on AOL are used freely by the trainees in this conversation without so much as a flinch by the trainer. The trainer continues with a list of words called conditionally vulgar.

Guide: V.G. GUIDELINES: Conditionally Vulgar: The following words would be warned (considered a violation of TOS) for depending on the context. In many cases with these word or topics you would CAUTION folks before warning. Some are warned if they use these words to harass other members: Some are warned if used in a sexual way but not warned for if they are used in a discussion as a medical term. Remember you never have to warn for any of these. But should take in the tone of the room and the other member's response. When in doubt DON'T warn for: Ass, bitch, butthead, cornholio, crap, douche, cum, defecation, dyke, faggot, fag, fart, genitalia, go to hell, horny, homo, penis, piss, pussy, queer, Sadomasochism, slut/whore/ho, urination, vagina, whips and chains. You should use good judgement when deciding whether to warn for the Vulgar items on this list.

(A short discussion of each word on the list and when it should be "warned" for follows here but has been deleted for the sake of brevity.)

Guide: The following terms are OK if used as a medical reference or in a way that is NONSEXUAL: Guide: defecation, genitalia, penis, semen, urination, vagina and douche.

(a short discussion of each of these words and when it can and cannot be used follows, but has also been deleted for the sake of brevity.)

Guide: But can be warned for if someone is just trying to be crude or disruptive. Any questions on those items?

SMW: ?

Guide: SMW?

SMW: So If I defecate on my erect penis as I urinate without semen its ok?

SMW: :::running:::

MN: !

AU: But you need to discuss the medical aspect of doing so

Guide: nope because that isn't within an appropriate discussion...it's just being crude.

MN: Not if you plan on feltching later, SMW.


AU: Ewwwww

AU: will it fit through the straw?

Ignoring all this unconditionally vulgar chat, the trainer continues....

Guide: Sexually Explicit Language: AOL has a strict policy about blatant sexual usage of some words in room names, screen names and in Chat. Certain Sexual words are violations of the Terms of Service because we do not allow Public sexual discussion.

In many cases you would CAUTION the member before warning them. Cunt, fuck, twat, tit and clit are all unconditionally vulgar. Warn for those. Cunnilingus, fellatio and masturbation as a topic are warnable.... Cross dressing transvestite, transsexual and BI are ALL allowed and are NOT TOS Violations. "It is recommended when engaging in fellatio that a condom be placed upon the penis for maximum protection from STDs." is NOT a violation. (the word)

"Sex" is almost always tosable except when it refers to gender. Sex check is ok. But asking someone to have sex with you is not. You also cannot use sexual terms or slang. You cannot use "Suck" in a sexual way. Hot\Wet are tosable when used sexually, but not when describing something nonsexual. "My new computer is soooo HOT" is OK! "I'm moist and wet for you babe" is not. "I want some HOT Gifs (digital photos) is OK! Come\cum is a tricky one. You can assume that Come\cum is vulgar if used in a sexual way. But if cum is NOT used in a sexual way it is assumed to be a SPELLING error. "I'm coming on my keyboard" is warnable. "Cum on let's play" is not warnable. "Pussy" is usually warnable as vulgar when used as sexual slang. The only time you wouldn t warn for pussy when it is a cat reference. Members will play around with this one making borderline comments then immediately say, Guide I was talking about my cat. Give them the benefit of the doubt.

"BLOW ME or Blow Job are warnable. "DICK" is warnable when used as slang for penis. So is "Cock". "COCK" is on the list if it is used as slang for penis. Not a chicken reference. Some topics and items are warnable if the member is using them to solicit sex or to be sexually explicit: Horny, Sadomasochism, submissive, whips and chains, Bondage. The content here is important. The WORDS themselves can be used! BUT if someone is looking for that kind of sexual activity or if they are trying to start a sexual discussion then you warn. BUT try teaching them first that those things are best used privately. Try to avoid warning for these things. Try to caution.... Remembering that its our primary function to TEACH not Warn.

If the primary function of guides is to TEACH and not warn, why then doesn't AOL save itself a LOT of time and effort and just post a list of the words which are warnable? That seems the easiest way to educate their consumers. Why the secrecy?

Guide: Masking and Foreign Language: In addition Members cannot MASK vulgarity. Example of Masked Vulgarity: Sh*t, **s, f**k. FOR A MASKED VULGARITY TO BE WARNED FOR AT LEAST ONE (1) LETTER MUST BE PRESENT. Comic Book Masking doesn't count! @#$%#%! There are no letters present. You can get a sense of masked vulgarity from the context of the line. Foreign vulgarity can also be warned for. Rely on other guides to help you translate if you are not sure. When in doubt ask around about what a certain term means. You must provide the translation when you send your TOS WARN Mail. Remember the Vulgarity guidelines are highly confidential. Do not share them with anyone outside of the guide program....

It is clear that AOL has a vulgarity list because there it is! Upon receiving this list another reporter and I wrote a letter to CEO Steve Case and told him that we had the list. We told him we were going to go public with the list and did he have a response. We gave him 48 hours to respond. Neither of us received a response from him. I wrote to the systems operator of the Writers Club on AOL, a lady who goes by the screen name ThopeB. I asked her if there was such a list and she said, "I have not heard of such a list."

In his letter to the members on AOL at the beginning of March, Steve Case proudly told members how AOL had joined the fight against censorship. This is in fact, true. At the end of February, America on Line, Prodigy, Compuserve, the National Library Association and seventeen other entities asked the Citizens Internet Empowerment Coalition to represent them in the fight against the Communications Decency Act. It is much easier for AOL to establish and enforce its own censorship practices, than to adopt the much broader and vaguer guidelines of the CDA. Not only that, the CDA establishes a fine of $250,000 and a two-year prison sentence for anyone who provides "indecent " material to a minor. With so much "obscene" chat available in AOL chat rooms, the CDA presents a fine line which AOL and the other online service providers just don't want to walk.

But be sure the hypocrisy of AOL in fighting censorship on the one hand, and practicing it on the other, have not escaped the watchful observer. Since AOL joined the lawsuit for relief from the CDA, many consumers, including CCA, a group of poets fighting the censorship practices of AOL, have written letters to Steve Case and other administrators on AOL pointing out the inconsistency. As usual, their letters go unanswered.

Perhaps AOL thinks consumers are a dime-a-dozen, and maybe they are. Perhaps AOL believes that it does not have to answer the queries and concerns of its subscribers. But there is a groundswell of discomfort among their informed consumers. AOL refuses to say how many, but it appears that the numbers of consumers who choose to no longer use AOL are growing. Censorship along with questionable billing practices and high rates are cited as the top three reasons. But as more and more people like the poets, who are just trying to practice their art, and the atheists, who just want a forum for their beliefs, are censored, AOL stands to continue to lose consumers. The blitz of the American consumer with free AOL disks has reached its saturation point. Listen up, AOL, it is a long downhill slide from here.

[Bullet]Return to "Freedom of Expression and America Online"
Return to AfterNoon