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America Online backs off English-only rule

America Online, the nation's largest online service, reversed a week-old English-only rule in a soccer discussion forum after angry Spanish-speaking subscribers called it racist and threatened to cancel.

Many of the regulars in the forum hail from countries where soccer verges on a religion, and they flooded AOL with irate e-mail messages complaining that their Spanish postings were being deleted as quickly as they wrote them.

"AOL's supposed to let you communicate with the world, but we can't talk about our teams?" said Marcelo Rossetti, a Burlingame, Calif., graphic designer who led the protest.

Thursday, AOL issued a public apology and a note that "AOL now encourages members to post multilingual messages."

"It's a victory for people who have fought for their rights to be upheld," said Salvador Sahagun, a restaurant owner from Santa Rosa, Calif., who joined the protest. "If they don't want our business, we can always go elsewhere."

The rule, which took effect July 17, came about because America Online strives to maintain a G-rating for all its public areas _ which requires being able to understand what has been said. None of the volunteers who monitored the forum for offensive statements spoke the language.

"We couldn't read the postings in Spanish or Portuguese," said AOL spokeswoman Cathy Johnson.

Although English is the unofficial language of cyberspace, the use of other languages is growing as more people globally get online.