Public Health Officials Consider Legal Action To Require Chat Room Operators To Post STD Outbreak Warnings
Dr. Jeffrey Klausner, director of STD Prevention and Control Services at the San Francisco Department of Public Health, and other public health officials are considering legal action against AOL and other Web sites to require them to post warnings in chat rooms about sexually transmitted disease outbreaks among men who have sex with men, Wired News reports. Klausner said that chat rooms and some Web sites "are clearly facilitating the transmission of STDs and new HIV infections," adding that their operators are "setting themselves up for serious liability." A report released last month found that 44% of recently diagnosed syphilis cases in San Francisco were connected to the Internet, up from 13% in 2000 (Dotinga, Wired News, 1/22). The report indicated that Internet chat rooms and sex partner Web sites were the most common venues for meeting sex partners among the 415 MSM who were diagnosed with early syphilis in 2002. Researchers found that 45% of the 151 MSM interviewed had met sex partners online (California Healthline, 12/19/03). Some Web sites have posted sexual health warnings, including online message board craigslist, which requires visitors to the "men seeking men" section of its San Francisco page to click past a link to a safer-sex forum and a sexual health message.
Public health officials and AOL have been in discussions about the sexual health warnings for more than two years. AOL has declined to post safe sex announcements or related ads in privately formed chat rooms, although the company has provided free accounts to safer-sex counselors and temporarily posted public service announcements last year. "We don't have the technical ability to place ads only in the chat rooms where they'd reach the target audience," AOL spokesperson Andrew Weinstein said. Klausner said that he believes chat rooms will be subject to the same laws that require liquor companies to place warning labels on their products, adding that he and other public health officials are in discussions with an attorney about possible legal action to require chat room operators to post STD outbreak warnings. However, Charles Tobin, a Washington, D.C., media attorney, said, "There's no legal mechanism to force an industry like the Internet to post any kind of message. What is being traded over the Internet in chat rooms is free speech. The government cannot be in the business of forcing someone to speak" (Wired News, 1/22).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.