The AOL List: Fury

David Cassel (
Tue, 18 Mar 1997 00:19:24 -0800 (PST)

			         F u r y


His company's stock lost half its value when AOL mis-reported the price in
their financial area.  "Insult was added to injury when the CEO spent the
better part of the day trying to get a stock quote for his company on his
own AOL account," PC Week wrote, "and ended up getting busy signals." 
[ ] Now Ben Ezra is suing
America Online.  "Unlike the traditional media, it does not appear to
understand that as a conveyor of information, it can cause serious damage
and it must correct misinformation immediately," Ezra announced Thursday. 

AOL demurred.  "In our notice, we say we want people to check the prices,
but not necessarily use it to base their transactions," a spokesperson
told C|Net March 6.  [,4,8564,00.html ]
"AOL Shirks Responsibility in Communicating Information," Ezra responded
in his press release. "This is another example of people in the computer
world who are so isolated and/or ignorant that they are unable to
understand the ramifications of what they have wrought."  He wasn't
mollified when AOL corrected the stock price.  "That's a little like
saying the Titanic hit an iceberg yesterday and today the ocean is just
fine," he told CNN. [ ]

He's not the only one angry.  "On Tuesday night I was still getting calls
at my home at a quarter to 1 in the morning," one executive told the
Washington Post last week. "Thanks, AOL."  
idx.html ] Lawyers pointed out to CNN that AOL distributed the incorrect
prices "knowingly over a period of time."  "We can't see how this company
was injured," AOL told Reuters. [ ] "When we learned about it we moved
quickly to remedy the situation." 

But did they?  CNN obtained the phone message an AOL executive left on
Ezra's answering machine--reporting that it showed "AOL knew about the
problem for weeks, and had only posted a hard to find notice in the last
few days." [ ]

They also noted that AOL blamed the company providing their quotes.  AOL
implied S&P Comstock had changed transmission procedures for their data. 
But even if that's true, Art Stone, a Michigan programmer who designed the
quote system interface for a financial exchange in Chicago, is skeptical. 
"This is not the kind of thing a quote service just 'does',"  he wrote in
a Usenet post.  "They warn everyone a long time in advance, and say 'On
March 1st, this will change, etc...'. If that correspondence just sits on
someone's desk, you'll get a 'glitch'."  He noted that AOL eliminated the
erroneous quotes by tweaking their own computers.  "If a code change at
AOL 'fixed' the problem, then that pretty much admits it wasn't 'bad
data', doesn't it?" [ ]

It's been a bad month.  The day of Ezra's announcement, AOL agreed to give
refunds to customers who ran up hundreds of dollars in bills in January. 
Thousands of Packard Bell NEC's were pre-configured to dial a $6-an-hour
access number, according to the Sacramento Bee, resulting in automatic
debits to credit cards as high as $600.  "That was my rent money," one
subscriber remembered.  

But the headlines missed unreported dramas caused by AOL's software.  "It
just kept saying I had no mail," one poster noted on Usenet March 6.  "I
knew that not to be true, since my brother had sent me a number of
e-mails, and I had sent one from my work address. Still, no mail anywhere
on AOL...."  Others reported problems with AOL's newsreader in February. 
"It used to choose a certain number of characters and then insert a
carriage return," a post in a ballet newsgroup announced.  "Now our posts
are impossibly wide."

There were more problems to come.  "[A]fter causing all sorts of
acrimonious remarks by sending out posts with enormously long lines, AOL
is now back to its second favourite annoying trick of sending out two or
more posts of selected messages," one poster observed.  Her
news was welcomed.  "I wanted to explain to the group that I didn't really
post everything a billion times," another poster commented, "but I was
afraid my apology would increase everyone's unread messages to the googol
or so mark."  Voices rose in a chorus of pity.  "Bashing AOL is much too
easy these days."  "I honestly don't know why people sign up with them..." 
[ ]

The same conversations were taking place in  "I tried reporting the problem to
AOL," one poster reported, "but they sent me back some lame canned answer
about Parental Controls, which was totally irrelevant...makes me wonder
who is running America Online."  "Condolences to the AOLers," the thread
ended, "although I'm feeling less kind towards AOL itself." 

Yet AOL successfully eluded media coverage of their problems--until last
week.  Then PC Week noticed that AOL's mail went offline 24 hours on
Tuesday.  PC Week's web page reported AOL claimed "everything was up and
fine by 2 p.m,"--yet users said their mail still wasn't being delivered. 
Who to believe?  AOL's mail-server was still returning "bounce" messages. 
[ ] You can't hide problems
forever.  Even as AOL trumpeted their participation in a trial of 56 kbs
modems, a user told the press "AOL's slow Internet access and evening
congestion squander those gains."

It was almost inevitable that some incidents would spur action.  "I would
like others who are residents of Connecticut, that are fighting the bills
received due to AOL lack of security to let me know who you are," says Bob
Walsh.  [ ] His 18-year-old
daughter received her first monthly bill in November.  It was $391.38,
"mainly due to illegal use of private information which allowed a criminal
to get into AOL and make it appear it was our use."  He contacted the FTC,
the FBI, the National Fraud Information Center, and the Connecticut
attorney general's office.  "We have called AOL, and they do not return
our calls..."

Connecticut's attorney general even issued a statement about unpublicized
SprintNet numbers.  "It is ridiculous that, at a time when America
Online's access numbers are frequently busy, the company is not doing all
it can to let its subscribers know about all the local access numbers
available to them." [ ] 
And yet another class action emerged, alleging that AOL's record-keeping
mislead stockholders about the profitability of the company.  One reader
of AOL's Heckler's Online suggested an activity for the "You've got mail"
voice on his day off:  "Leave 'You've got lawsuits' messages on Steve
Case's voice mail." 
[ ]

More significant is the internet's new role:  when subscribers' grievances
are aired, it represents a sort of triumph.  "Theft online is kept very
low profile till people like us go public," Walsh told the AOL List. "This
is a New Frontier and communications is our first weapon of defense."


In an interview with the British newspaper The Guardian, Steve Case
offered his perspective on on-line pedophiles. 

"I don't think the press coverage of this is helpful."

        David Cassel
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