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America Online markets itself as a safe place for children, with parent-friendly features and a force of employees who monitor kids’ chat rooms and watch out for adults prowling for youngsters. But is AOL doing enough to monitor the monitors? That question is central to a lawsuit filed by a California teenager who claims a chat-room monitor tried to seduce her online. The employee allegedly used his position to proposition the girl over two years, during which they exchanged graphic images, e-mails and phone calls — exactly the kind of scenario the man was hired to prevent. AOL fired the man, Matthew D. Wright, and referred the case to the FBI and other law enforcement agencies, none of which pursued criminal charges. Attempts to locate Wright, listed in the lawsuit as a resident of Oklahoma, were unsuccessful. The girl’s lawsuit is the first such claim made against an employee at AOL or any other major Internet service provider, according to online child safety organizations and law enforcement agencies. It alleges negligence and false advertising and seeks at least $25,000 from Wright, AOL and its parent, Time Warner Inc. AOL says it closely screens its chat-room monitors and acted quickly in this case. Still, the company is being forced to defend itself over a service it pioneered in the mid-1990s and which remains a selling point to keep its millions of subscribers from jumping to other Internet service providers. “This case isn’t so much are they properly monitoring chat rooms for kids; this is more a question of what are they doing to monitor the qualities and qualifications of the people they’re hiring,” said Parry Aftab, an Internet lawyer in New Jersey who runs online safety workshops for parents and children. Claims of online abuse by an employee are rare, said Aftab, who has heard of no more than a dozen against chat-room monitors or moderators. Chat-room monitors are cyberspace’s lifeguards. They typically watch over the messages that participants post, and warn users when they cross the line with offensive or otherwise prohibited remarks. They can delete offending remarks, kick violators out of the chat room, even ban them from returning. AOL is a rarity — a major service provider that offers its own chat service, as well as one of the few online companies that have paid, full-time employees monitoring some chat rooms. The company markets its KOL, or Kids Online, chat area as a safer online experience. It was inside one kids-only chat room where Wright, then 23, first contacted the then-15-year-old girl, who was living in Kern County, Calif., according to the lawsuit. She is now 19 and living in Los Angeles. They grew close, according to the lawsuit, the girl gradually confiding in him about her parents’ divorce and her troubles making friends. She and Wright were preparing to meet on her 17th birthday and have sex, the lawsuit said, when one of the monitor’s co-workers became suspicious and blew the whistle. AOL spokesman Nicholas Graham said monitors undergo rigorous screening, including drug testing and background checks, and receive specialized training for the area and age group they will be monitoring. “That monitoring is itself actively monitored and scrutinized by internal compliance and investigation teams with close, long-standing working relationships with both law enforcement and children’s safety advocacy groups,” Graham said. “The bottom line is, AOL’s self-policing and self-monitoring efforts worked.” Graham would not say how many full-time chat-room monitors AOL has, or whether the company has tightened its procedures because of the case. But if AOL’s oversight was effective, Wright would have been caught well before he arranged to meet the girl, said her attorney, Olivier Taillieu. “You can’t let something like this go on for two years or a year and a half,” Taillieu said. “You can’t have the lifeguard jump in the pool and drown one of the kids.” Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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