The AOL List: Crime and Punishment

David Cassel (
Mon, 25 Nov 1996 22:49:03 -0800 (PST)

		C r i m e   a n d   P u n i s h m e n t


Envelopes mailed to millions of AOL subscribers this weekend read "AOL
Announces $19.95 Price for Unlimited Use".  But the real drama persisted: 
would AOL tell users paying $9.95 a month that their rates will double

Not in the first paragraph, which was standard marketing copy.  Maybe in
the second paragraph?  "Starting in December, the new price for AOL is
$19.95 per month for unlimited use!"  The third paragraph emphasized this
hint.  ("This new rate goes into effect automatically in December, on your
normal billing date,"  adding "You only need to contact us if you prefer a
different billing option.") And the last line of the letter stated "To
change rates you must contact us." 

The letter allowed AOL to claim they'd notified users--though they did so
obliquely.  The Washington Post calculated AOL's revenue would increase
$20 million per month if they successfully doubled the rates of all users
currently paying $9.95.  Even in the face of complaints from 17 state
attorneys general, AOL insisted the "default double" was fair--though
analysts labeled it a money-raising device. 

Ironically, the letter appears to have been mailed just a day before AOL
agreed to ask each user individually which plan they prefer as they sign

More interesting is the last paragraph of the letter.  AOL promises
they're upgrading their network, but "No matter how hard we try, we do
expect the sudden increase in create some temporary 'traffic
congestion'--especially during our peak hours." 

"Apologies Online" is the name New York Times columnist Stephen Manes
gives AOL. In a recent issue of NetGuide, he calls Steve Case "the
absolute master of executive excuses," saying Case's monthly letters offer
"the latest formulation of how truly sorry he is that his system screwed
up yet again."  Manes even wrote a response to Steve Case, noting that
during the 19-hour outage, "I didn't appreciate the messages that kept
asking me to try again in 15 minutes."  In two words Manes crystallized
the probable sentiments of many AOL users.  "Excuses, excuses." 

Ironically, NetGuide's page is listed as an "AOL Members Choice." 

There's more mail.  In another letter, Steve Case pitched the AOL Visa
card--"The Only Card That Lets You Enjoy A Low 5.9% Fixed Introductory APR
And Earn Free Time on AOL"-- noting much further down that the rate
switches to 17.9% following the introductory period.  That passage has an
asterisk corresponding to a footnote hidden on the back of the page.  In
very small type, it announced the rate expires in April.  "Say Goodbye to
High Interest Rates" the letter promises; but it's more like saying "Catch
You Later". 

The credit card's unique feature is its AOL rewards program.  But
according to the letter, "reward points" can only be redeemed for free
time on AOL--which is worthless in the face of the new flat-rate pricing. 
Even worse: below Steve Case's signature the small print details how AOL
had intended to qualify the program: 

-  "You will not earn Reward Points and may not redeem Reward Points if
your America Online Visa Card account is not in good standing." 

- "In the event that your America Online account is terminated for a
violation of America Online's then-applicable Terms of Service...all
unredeemed Reward Points shall automatically terminate and no additional
Reward Points shall accumulate." 

- "America Online and First USA reserve the right to cancel, modify,
restrict or terminate the America Online Rewards Program or any aspects or
features of the program at any time without prior notice." 

In a fitting piece of irony, keyword "Legal" was attacked on AOL.
According to C|Net, hackers defaced the AOL area early Monday--the "O.J.
Simpson civil case" icon returning the message "This area is under
construction" next to the cryptic statement, "Its a PIC of OLAF".  (As of
8pm EST, "Weekly Contest" and "Legal Helpline" still displayed the message
"This area under construction"--but without the OLAF graffiti.)

Coincidentally, November 7 marked the one-year anniversary of the "Hacker
Riot", a chat room wilding of AOL's "New Member Lounges" that overloaded
AOL's Guide-paging software.  This followed within a few weeks of a
Massachusetts teenager's successful heist of Steve Case's e-mail (and that
of other AOL executives).  One piece of that e-mail was even posted to the
internet: notes of a meeting outlining AOL's battle-plan against hackers. 


Bank of America mailed customers a November announcement that "festive
holiday displays" would offer 50 free hours on AOL to promote its new Bank
of America area.  Within days, AOL offered flat-rate pricing; that offer
is now worthless. 

        David Cassel
        More Information -

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