Banned in Dulles

Political commentary and more.
July 31 2001 10:36 PM

Banned in Dulles

Recently my Web site, kausfiles.com, was blocked by the parental filtering controls at America Online, the country's biggest Internet access provider. AOL customers couldn't get to my site even when the controls were set for "Mature Teens"--a setting that's supposed to bar only "sites with explicitly mature content." Instead, these mature AOL users got a message saying:

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WEB RESTRICTED

This created a challenging journalistic conflict of interest. As CEO of kausfiles, I immediately recognized such heavy-handed censorship as a potential marketing coup. Look at what it did for Tropic of Cancer! Josh Marshall's mezine wasn't blocked. Virginia Postrel's site wasn't blocked. Andrewsullivan.com wasn't blocked. Only kausfiles had the forbidden fruit. Hey kids! Over here!

On the other hand, as a journalist I was curious why I'd been spiked by the porn filter. Had Gary Condit done it? An overly enthusiastic description of the expanded Earned Income Tax Credit? Graphic accounts of the unspeakable things Floridians had done with their big, swinging chad?

I called AOL and learned that a) the initial screening is done by a computer program called RuleSpace, without intervention by humans; b) it looks for suspicious combinations of words--an isolated "f**k" or "breast" won't do the trick, but "breast" in the proper (or, rather, improper) context would; c) the system doesn't keep a record of which word combinations set it off; and d) if anybody (usually a parent) complains, humans then review the computer's decision and can overrule it.

As I feared, my inquiry was misconstrued as a complaint, and an AOL rep cheerfully informed me that my site would soon be unbanned and available to "Mature Teens" across the nation.

Worse, AOL's filter program is so sophisticated that, upon being upbraided by the human second-guessers, it subtly modifies itself so that it won't again block similar sites. Not only was I no longer suppressed, but it would be harder in the future for me to get suppressed. A few casual references to "low hanging fruit" wouldn't do the trick.

My hopes were briefly lifted on Sunday, when AOL again blocked my site. This was after I quoted a Tucker Carlson column discussing Rep. Condit's idea of "kinky sex" (including a reference to "neckties knotted together"). But I was later informed that this daring talk wasn't what had activated the porn filter--AOL's order to unblock my site simply hadn't cycled through all its computers yet. The company hadn't even bothered to "scan" my site again--that normally happens "every 30 days or 60 days." Only large, frequently changing sites like Salon and Slate are scanned "dynamically," page by page, as they are called up by users.

In fact, I was told, I've now been "white-listed." (Don't tell Al Sharpton!) As I understand it, white-listing means I have a free pass--no matter how hard I try, I won't be blocked. I was half-jokingly asked not to take advantage of this new status, but if AOL is going to crudely refuse to suppress me, I'm not sure I owe them anything.

The only remaining mystery is what had triggered AOL's auto-censor in the first place. It's apparently not easy to do. A few hours ago, running the "Mature Teen" filter, I had no problem reaching the "Sex" section of Salon, including the complete "Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl" ("When two girls are doing one guy, it's hard to keep the signals straight") and "Zaftig Erotica." Kausfiles has nothing to top that--the filthiest thing I've written isn't even available on my site. My best guess it that some lurid (but responsible!) speculation about how a certain missing intern might have been killed, coupled with a highly explicit discussion of German labor market rigidity, simply overwhelmed AOL's servers.

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