AOL Update

David Cassel (
Mon, 28 Oct 1996 22:33:03 -0800 (PST)

It's been a bad week for Ron Newman.  First he received five copies of the
mass-mailed child pornography spam over three of his accounts.  Then, AOL
mistakenly put his ISP on the list of automatically-blocked sites. 
"Several AOL users have already lost e-mail that I sent them yesterday,"
Newman said in a Usenet post Friday.  Protests from his domain would fall
on deaf ears, since they'd also presumably be filtered.  "And if I get
spammed *by* an AOL user," he added, "I no longer have any way to complain
to AOL, because the 'abuse' address at AOL is probably filtering out my
mail as well." 

Even more ironic, Newman is a well-respected MIT graduate who established
a set of technical standards for evaluating newsreaders--and he was an
early figure in the internet's clash with the church of Scientology. 
"I've never heard of a single net-abuse complaint against my ISP," Newman

This looks like a mistake.  In their war on Cyber Promotions, America
Online blocked delivery for mail from,, and But there's also a Massachusetts internet service
called's ISP. And AOL put them on the blocked list. 
But unlike the spam-only domains, this one has over 1500 users--including
the Art Institute of Boston!

This highlights the pitfalls of the way AOL implemented their mail
controls.  All 6 million of the service's members found the blocking had
already taken place.  It went into effect immediately, and e-mail delivery
for blocked domains only returned if users pro-actively disabled it.  And
AOL appears to have deleted all e-mail from the banished
domains--including Ron's--the day they put the filters onto the 6 million
accounts!  "They should have given every AOL user several days' advance
notice that the blocking would begin," Newman said in an interview, "or
required an affirmative decision by each user to begin having their mail

Instead, the corporate giant imposed their enemies list from above.  For 6
million users, Ron Newman and his fellow users were "vanished" overnight. 
More importantly, no one knew why.  "The list of sites to be blocked
should include the specific reason that each site is on the list," Newman
continued.  "Every AOL user should have ready access to this information." 
He points out that AOL users can't even add or remove sites.  (Though one
Usenet post suggested this is an unpublicized feature of AOL's

And the incident suggests another important feature.  "Mail should *never*
be silently "eaten"..."  ("I no longer get a bounce message even when I
send to a non-existent user name at AOL!" Newman's Usenet post observed
Friday.)  So what does he think of AOL's new filtering system?  "I think
it sucks!"

"Nothing like having a 800-lb gorilla sit on you," one observer commented
privately.  The irony is, it's trivial for junk mailers to elude AOL's
blocks simply by creating new domain names.  (A point AOL conceded to
Interactive Week [9/5/96])  And of course, the blocking controls won't
affect spam originating from AOL--a British newspaper reported that up to
9,000 people received last week's AOL-domain child pornography
solicitation.  AOL's moves appear mostly for show--a test mailbox tonight
still contains 5 pieces of junk mail.

While wondered if they'd be the first casualty of AOL's
once-a-week update policy for the blocked-domains list, AOL quietly
scratched them off the list Monday afternoon--"pending a further review" 
AOL's spokesman told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.  While AOL's
postmaster publicly announced the new mail controls Friday, he was
noticeably silent about the correction. Possibly because it calls
attention to flaws in AOL's procedure.  "The AOL tool 'silently' blocks
incoming mail, without notifying the sender, as is customary on the
Internet," Art Kramer wrote in the Journal-Constitution.  "So senders at
the 53 domains are not aware that any e-mail to AOL users has been
intercepted and destroyed."  "I'd like AOL to tell me and my ISP what is
going on," Newman told me Monday night.  "So far I've heard *nothing* from
AOL other than 'we're looking into it.' I had to read Usenet to learn that
AOL had removed us from the block list -- just as I had to read Usenet a
few days ago to learn that AOL had put us on the list in the first place." 

In Newman's opinion, AOL's policy is "fundamentally flawed".  "It is
*wrong* for AOL to produce a blacklist without an accompanying document
explaining why each particular site is on the blacklist.  It is *wrong*
for AOL to silently discard mail instead of rejecting or bouncing it." 

For Newman, AOL's actions raise the specter of arbitrary mail disruptions. 
"If AOL doesn't review its policies, what happened to Cybercom this week
could happen to *your* domain next week." 

Footnote:  the court date for AOL's suit against the junk-mail king begins
two weeks from Tuesday.  


One reader reports that an ad for AOL's "PrimeHost" web-hosting service
appeared in an unusual Yahoo category.  "Anti-AOL sites". 

	     AOL Watch -

Please forward with subscription information and headers in-tact.

To subscribe to this moderated list, send a message to MAJORDOMO@CLOUD9.NET
containing the phrase SUBSCRIBE AOL-SUX in the message body.