AOL censors out Second Amendment rights

By Lisa S. Dean
web posted September 11, 2000

The Internet is the only free uncensored system of communication in this country. Talk radio would come in a close second but there are many restrictions on the types of topics that can be covered, limitations on the number of times individuals can participate, restrictions from government on the radio stations themselves. And, of course, at any moment a talk station today carrying Rush Limbaugh and Dr. Laura and a host of popular local talk show folks can tomorrow turn into an acid rocker station with 24 hours of head-banging or what some claim is music.

That is why knowing who controls the Internet and what their policies are becomes very important. For the last year or so, the 800-pound gorilla of the Internet in the US is America On Line. With 22 million subscribers it dominates everyone else in the field. That is why it is extremely disturbing that AOL has adopted a policy that treats guns and ammunition the same as child pornography and pedophilia. If you try to buy or sell live ammo from your AOL account you will be monitored and eventually you will be warned and if you don't cease and desist, then your account will be closed.

Last year AOL sent an email to one of its customers, a licensed firearms dealer saying "We have become aware of a web page site that is part of your account. This web page violates Hometown AOL's Community Standards, which prohibits sexually explicit graphics, links to other sites which Hometown deems offensive, harassment, the use of vulgar or sexually oriented language, discussion of illegal activities, and/or other activities that may impair the enjoyment of our community's members.

"We have placed a note of this incident on your account history and consider this a first warning. We have removed all the file(s) from your web page/ftp site. A second occurrence will result in termination of your account with no chance of reactivation."

AOL has made this policy arbitrarily and yet will not explain it to its subscribers. Child pornography is illegal. Guns and ammunition are protected under the Second Amendment. Yet AOL chooses to treat the two identically by refusing to allow any one of its subscribers to engage in his Constitutional right to keep and bear arms. In doing so, of course, AOL has followed in the path of a host of smaller Internet Service Providers who have the same policy.

When the Constitution provides that a practice is legal and yet someone hinders our ability to exercise that practice, that someone is setting himself up as an arbiter of our rights. From whom does AOL get this authority? Well, of course, they are a private business and they can adopt whatever practice they wish. But when you look at what companies AOL has swallowed up in the past year and those few that are left that don't have such arbitrary policies, it is truly frightening. Unless someone with a lot of capital is willing to come in to start a new ISP and is going to be open to keeping the Second Amendment alive and well, there may come a time very soon when gun owners are simply shut out of every medium of communication.

They have no television sympathetic to them. Radio, with the exception of short wave, is very restricted. Now many newspapers and magazines will not take ads for guns and ammunition and if they do, gun-grabbing organizations are encouraging readers to tear them out. The Internet was one place, for a short time, gun owners could go to exercise their freedom.

Yes, AOL is a business free to make its own policies. But customers are also free to make their own decisions as well. No person who respects the Second Amendment should subscribe to AOL unless they change their policies. There are millions of gun owners and other online services that will gladly accept new customers and the cost is in dollar amounts, not in freedoms.

If computer users take their freedom seriously and switch to another provider, AOL will feel it in the bottom line. At that point perhaps they may be willing to discuss the matter with their subscribers. At that point perhaps AOL will respect and preserve the rights of Americans to practice the right to keep and bear arms in practical terms. If not, perhaps AOL should find a more comfortable home elsewhere . . . say . . . in Havana or Beijing.

Lisa Dean is Vice President for Technology Policy at the Free Congress Foundation.

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