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"We've worked with groups to provide health and safe-sex information, and we'll continue to do so."But AOL refuses to post announcements or banner ads in privately created chat rooms.

"We don't have the technical ability to place ads only in the chat rooms where they'd reach the target audience," he said.

It didn't take long for experts to trace the syphilis outbreaks to online chat rooms where gay men meet and set up sexual encounters outside the traditional venues of bars, bathhouses and sex clubs.

While heterosexuals use the Internet to find sex, too, chat rooms are more popular among gay and bisexual men, said Dr. Valdiserri, a deputy director with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

AOL, meanwhile, gives free accounts to safer-sex counselors and temporarily posted public-service announcements last year.

"We take our members' health very seriously," said AOL spokesman Andrew Weinstein.

(Watered-down equal-time rules continue to apply to broadcast TV and radio stations, but only because they use airwaves licensed from the government.)Tobin added that websites don't have a legal responsibility to monitor their chat rooms, just as owners of old-fashioned bulletin boards aren't responsible for posted notices."For the most part, the provider is often seen as just the pipe," said Mark Grossman, a technology attorney in Miami.

"AOL is not responsible because you libeled someone using AOL, just as the phone company is not responsible for slander that occurs over its phone lines."Even if health activists do convince more chat-room owners to cooperate with them, it's not clear which prevention efforts will work.

"I don't think any of our members would want to track who goes into what chat room."These arguments don't impress Deb Levine, executive director of the San Francisco-based Internet Sexuality Information Services, a nonprofit organization that provides safer-sex materials to websites.

Free-speech rights – especially those held by AOL itself – may stand in the way."There's no legal mechanism to force an industry like the Internet to post any kind of message," said Washington, D. The government cannot be in the business of forcing someone to speak."The Supreme Court upheld the principle in a landmark Florida case that pitted a newspaper against a political candidate who wanted equal time on the editorial page, Tobin said.

The court said the government couldn't force the newspaper to print anything.

The people who create M4M chat rooms reportedly banish safer-sex counselors on a regular basis, while links to outside websites are easily ignored.

One approach is to utilize online profiles to help gay men easily disclose their safer-sex habits to each other, said Dan Wohlfeiler, an official with a California state agency that monitors STDs.

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