The AOL List: Hacking the New York Times

David Cassel (
Thu, 1 May 1997 03:40:31 -0700 (PDT)

		H a c k i n g   t h e   N e w  Y o r k   T i m e s


"All the news that's fit to print," the New York Times promises. 

"Kiddie Porn click here," their AOL area announced Tuesday night. 

Wednesday Elliott Rebhun, editor of "The New York Times on America
Online," told The AOL List that hackers had changed the text below icons
on the area's main screen.  "I think it happened for about--my guess is an
hour," he estimated.  "An awful lot of people at AOL up and down the chain
of command were on the case immediately." 

They scrambled to erase the messages.  "Gay nuns click here," another icon
offered. "Island krew click here."  One witness told the AOL List that the
hackers had even left their own tantalizing news headline:  "AOL Hacker
Caught Today."  It was premature. "They're trying to figure out who did
it," Rebhun told the AOL List, "and make sure it never happens again." 

But this latest episode will probably find an unsympathetic audience. 
"Hack away.... Censorship is wrong"  one reader commented Sunday.  Another
hacker demonstrated the same thoughts in a letter to Steve Case.  "You
know people would'nt be fuckin with aol so much if you just allowed us
free speech."  As the internet moves the ability to publish to the grass
roots, the policies of large corporations are eyed suspiciously. 
Especially by new media pundits.  "[I]t is still possible for people
around the world to make sure this new sphere of vital human discourse
remains open to the citizens of the planet," Howard Rheingold wrote in his
1993 book Virtual Communities, "before the political and economic big boys
seize it, censor it, meter it, and sell it back to us."

Rheingold refused to name names in a conversation last year, but conceded
that his sympathies lay elsewhere. "I don't think that logging onto a chat
room on AOL is what I had in mind when I wrote Virtual Communities."

Corporations like AOL face a threat from free information on the internet. 
In a kind of acknowledgement, when Steve Case published his New Year's
resolutions for 1996, #5 was providing users "with even more -- and even
better -- content."  But instead, competition from ISP's forced AOL to
abandon subscriber fees and move to flat-rate pricing.  By the end of the
year, there had been a wave of defections--the Discovery Channel, House of
Blues, Wired, NewsBytes, USA Weekend, Atlantic Monthly, and even Omni
magazine.  Pam Weintraub, Editor of Omni, described her thinking for the
AOL List.  "We were uncertain as to how a successful business model within
the AOL environment might work...  As AOL moves to an unlimited time pay
base, the question is: How will sites like ours make money if we cannot
collect for connect time? " 

It doesn't surprise David Keane.  Last December the Jupiter Communications
analyst told the AOL List that AOL would lose "some guys whose entire
revenue source, their lunch money, is predicated on AOL's usage numbers." 
Newsbytes said as much.  "Our royalties weren't that high," remembered
Steve LaLiberte, their VP of Internet Services. 

AOL's entertainment division hopes they can compete with the internet's
flood of grass-roots content by creating their own--but unfortunately,
they have a mixed record.  In 1995 Keyword "Murder" was created--"a place
to get involved in playing out and solving an exciting, blood-curdling
mystery."  In 1997, just one mystery remained:  where the keyword went. 
Yet AOL continued their efforts.  Last Spring, promising "the next
generation of fiction and entertainment," AOL issued a press release about
their newest offering.  The CEO of ZMedia had unveiled "Zombie Detective",
saying the new AOL area's "anti-authoritarian theme and offbeat characters
will attract a hip, young audience."  It didn't happen.  Four months
later, keyword ZOMBIE brought up a message titled "Zombie says
Goodbye!"--leaving only ghosts on its web site. 
(  But "the developer learned that lesson," 
an optimistic Ted Leonsis told AOL's "AOL Insider" columnist in March,
"and he's working with us on new projects."  The web's content is still
proving heartier--despite the Zombie Detective's promotional slogan "Sign
on to AOL or we track you down and kill you." 

In fact, AOL's efforts leave a trail of failed keywords.  Bernie Siegel,
the author of "Love, Medicine, & Miracles," found only disappointment. 
Keyword "Bernie"  didn't last a year on AOL.  And neither did Keyword Bonk
--"a twisted literary spin on trivia, ranging from Hamlet to Spider-man". 
In the section of an on-line announcement titled "Why?  Why?  Why?" the
Motley Fool explained why they'd shut down their Hollywood column,
"Follywood". "Well, to cut to the chase...we didn't draw enough people to
our area to sustain it financially." 

In fact, Ted Leonsis recently conceded to Cowles Business Media that in
1995, 40% of the hours used on AOL were spent in chat rooms.  AOL
originally hoped to generate advertising revenue from the content on AOL,
but in a kind of concession, they've simply placed ads next to the chat
rooms.  Later this month, AOL hopes to extend this strategy--by placing
ads on their user's mailboxes. 

Unfortunately, AOL's corporate culture may hamper that effort too.  Wired
News recently cited an International Herald Tribune report that AOL's
Britain users received a new user contract "giving the company 'the right
to monitor or disclose' email or other data to police or security
officials..."  And AOL's efforts against busy signals have also stirred
suspicion. Though their television ads to proclaim that "You may have
noticed--it's getting better," a recently-released study indicates AOL
still showed a call-failure rate of 60.3 percent for the month of
March--twice as bad as any of its competitors. 
(,4,10151,00.html)  (AOL's problems have
legitimized the company which produced the study.  "Inverse was first
noticed by the news media when AOL was sued by disgruntled subscribers,"
their web site announces proudly.

Everyone's becoming uncharitable.  In a post signed "The LORD bless you,
and keep you" in alt.religion.christina.calvary-chapel, an AOL subscriber
complains that posts sent on April 19 didn't appear on the AOL system
until April 22.  "I've had some bad ISP's but that beats them all except
the one that couldn't get ANY post past their own system." Meanwhile, in
an April 22 post titled "AOL still screwing up rec.guns"  one user vents
their frustration.  "[T]his morning's new phenom was the last straw --
'find new' suggested that 7124 'new' messages had been posted in the 10
hours since I checked last night and found 1 new post.  Clicking on 'list
unread' brought up 124 messages from 2 weeks ago."

Subscribers are getting angry--even actor Danny DeVito.  "I'm not blaming
AOL," he told Red Herring magazine, "but if I had a guy's aorta in one
hand and a needle in the other, and a doctor in Sweden was telling me how
to do a stitch, and all of a sudden I got 'Your session has been
interrupted,' I would be pissed off."

It seems that while the internet's grass roots critics develop, newspapers
still have a role:  covering AOL's missteps.  In fact, one year ago,
Chicago Tribune columnist Mike Royko uncovered the experiences of an AOL
customer who received an unusual letter from AOL customer service.  "Dear
Fucking Dennis L'Heureux:  America Online values you as a customer and
wants to reinstate your membership as soon as possible."

Probing the story, the Pulitzer prize-winning columnist found the unlucky
corporate executive had quarreled with an AOL customer service
representative.  When Royko pressed AOL for an explanation, they confessed
they didn't know how or why the expletive was added. 

"Lucky for AOL and Mr. Case that it didn't happen to Ted Kaczynski," Royko
commented.  Shortly before his death, he added this comment to his profile
on AOL. 

"On-line is OK," he wrote, "but a tavern is better." 


Recently AOL's customer service center received a prank phone call from
the hacker named Dr. Ill.  "Some of my friends who have AOL say they get
something called 'cybersex'," he asked the representative.  His question: 
"Does this cost extra?"  ( 

	[A screen-shot of the hacked New York Times area has been placed


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