AOL - Mail Madness

David Cassel (
Fri, 25 Oct 1996 14:11:38 -0700 (PDT)

Yesterday AOL announced a new mail feature--then minutes later, issued a
correction on an earlier press release.  "The third line should read,
"Motley Fool," rather than "Motley Food". 

AOL is blocking e-mail from domains sending junk-mail--but they've grafted
the positive-sounding name "PreferredMail" to the feature. "PreferredMail
is a great solution to the problem of junk e-mail," Steve Case announced,
"because it gives members a choice.  AOL is not making a decision for its
members, the power is in their hands." 

Not really.  AOL chose to block all the junk e-mail for their users. 
Signing on today they found the backlog of junk mail had disappeared from
their boxes, and AOL had already instituted the blocks.  Seeking more
information lead to a box labeled "I want junk e-mail!" in bold letters,
which users had to check to restore the status quo. 

Even less empowering, only AOL can select sites to block. AOL's mail
control features let users screen specific addresses--one at a time--but
they have no control over junk mail from problem domains; junk-mailing
domains that create new user names will elude the controls indefinitely.
(Or until AOL decides--for their users--to put the domain on the
system-wide block list.)  The final blow:  AOL's postmaster announced
they'll update the list less than once a week. (A remark pointedly omitted
from the company's press release.)  At least one spammer has already
slipped passed the guards:  an entrepreneur who set up a phone survey on
whether or not recipients favored e-mail spam.  (The catch? It was a 1-900
number.  "You will be charged $2.99 for your call and you must be at least
18 years old to participate.")

Even though AOL's controls don't match standard mail filters on Eudora and
Pegasus, AOL's users are locked into the proprietary tools.  AOL's
software-from-above philosophy goes further--most users signing on this
morning received a mandatory software upgrade.  While AOL displayed a
"Thanks for waiting" message, software changes downloaded to the users'
hard drives.  There was no opt-out option.  Even though remote software
changes are a severe security risk, currently, if AOL decides to make one,
users have no choice.

The "AOL knows best" philosophy took a more sinister turn when today's
Welcome Screen announced:  "RELIGION:  Share the Good News in Christianity
Online."  Non-Christians shouldn't be surprised; in September, AOL
re-scheduled the promotional stop for their "On the Move" tour bus to the
first day of Rosh Hashanah.  Though it's the holiest day on the Jewish
calendar--a day of fasting a praying--an AOL staffer scolded posters who
complained.  "No matter where or when this stop would be scheduled,
someone would find a reason to complain about it. If its on a weekday,
people have to work...  If its on a Saturday, then people are out of town
or its a high Holyday... Could we all stop griping and just enjoy the tour
stop?"  I talked to Marc Klein, editor and publisher of the Jewish
Bulletin, who also runs AOL's Judaism area (Keyword: Jewish).  "These are
not always the highest-paid people in the world," he observed wryly.  "They
don't think these things through very clearly".  (Klein's area logs close
to 1000 hours a day--a close competitor to MTV Online, which, according to
Rolling Stone, gets 2300.  [10/3/96]) 

The most insidious control of all has been applied to AOL's mail controls,
parental controls, and the Steve Case letter:  you're charged for looking
at them.  Steve Case's letter had been in a free area until this summer. 
Recently-filed court documents indicate that the letter was AOL's single
most-accessed feature--so this summer, they began charging for it. 

That hints at the rationale behind these moves.  In July AOL offered a
discount on 20-hour blocks of time, and in the face of competition, may
offer flat-rate access for their internet tools.  That cuts into their
profitability--but as many subscribers were leaving the service as were
signing on.  AOL no longer enjoys explosive growth--in the last six months
they've added just a few hundred thousand members--and with $300 million
in deferred marketing costs, they can't afford a subscriber downturn.  So
earlier this month they announced their new marketing efforts would also
focus on retaining existing members.  (For instance, next month they'll
mail 6 million copies of a promotional video-tape to each of their current
members.)  And AOL is also addressing the biggest complaint from current
users:  junk- mail.  Ironically, the junk mailers have served as a
gadfly--their year-long efforts created a problem large enough to prompt
an AOL software upgrade! 

AOL announced they'd offset the lower subscriber fees with more
advertising revenues.  But users apparently were unhappy about AOL's own
ads, too--Case's statement included a new feature that eliminates the
"pop-up ads" when users sign-on.  That seems counter-productive--until you
realize the pop-ad "preferences" menu lists over a dozen ad categories. 
"Block all ads" is hidden off to the side--next to a box asking users if
they own a CD-ROM player.  This feature may actually help AOL target the
ads more specifically.  (In addition, the preference menu notes that ads
for AOL's pricing will override any user preferences.) 

Finally, while the junk-mail blocks are automatically implemented, the
pop-ads continues to appear by default until the user locates the
ad-disabling menu.  Though they're mentioned in Steve Case's mail update,
one wonders how well the controls will be publicized.  Before reading
Case's letter, I entered AOL's Tech Live "area". 

   AOLTechBOB:	   Welcome to America Online's Member Help Interactive, 
		   how may I help you? :-)

  {The AOL-List}:  Is there a way I can disable the ads that appear
	   	   when I sign-on?

   AOLTechBOB:	   No, there's no way to do that at this time :(

If AOL's techs don't know about them, how will the customers?

Watch for a story about AOL's new mail controls on PC World's "News
Radio"--hitting the web at 6pm EST, at


In a classic piece of bad timing, AOL purchased a banner ad on the Netly
News the day it ran a story on the mass-mailing selling child pornography. 
At the top of story, "Kiddie Prone," the ad read:  "Your very own AOL
Business.  AOL.  The company that makes online work." 

	     AOL Watch web page -

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