The AOL List: Retaliations

David Cassel (
Wed, 9 Jul 1997 12:21:58 -0700 (PDT)

			 R e t a l i a t i o n s


Is AOL misleading their customers?  "We're in very heavy negotiations with
them right now," Florida's Attorney General's special prosecutor told
the Sun-Sentinel.  ( 

Jack Norris, revealing an ongoing multi-state investigation, warned the
paper "If they violate the existing agreement, we will take appropriate
action."  He won't be alone.  36 state attorneys general will soon meet to
discuss issues related to AOL's pricing, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution
reports -- and New York's attorney general's office is promising to raise
concerns about new fees for games on AOL.  An attorney general's spokesman
told the paper that "these fees apply even during the free trial period
for new subscribers."

"We're concerned that hasn't been disclosed clearly enough," they added. 
( )  Recently AOL
implemented warnings on their welcome screen and exit screens -- but
they're addressed to families whose children might enter the $2.00-an-hour
gaming areas. 

The new pricing is AOL's bid for financial solvency after a dubious move
to unlimited-usage options -- which left the company strapped for cash.
AOL's also had to "strong-arm" their content providers to compensate for
lost revenue, according to HotWired's Ned Brainard ( l) -- by demanding
that the creators of content areas pay to retain their positions on the
service.  The flip-side of recently-announced placement deals with
1-800-FLOWERS -- an AOL content partner since 1994 -- is the decimation of
existing content through an unacknowledged exodus of smaller content
providers (  After years on the
service, they can't afford to pay AOL's new "rent". "Areas that
provide services but don't sell products or ads are likely to be hurt the
most under the flat-rate plan,"  C|Net reported, "as AOL's new model
relies on revenues from outside sources such as advertising and sales of
merchandise." (,4,12222,00.html )  The
impact is very real.  Explaining his site's departure from AOL after
nearly ten years, the President of Ambrosia software wrote, "The money
we'd spend to keep it in its present state would simply be better spent
beefing up our web site." 
( ) 

The signs were on the wall when AOL lost the San Jose Mercury News.  Since
October, many other content providers have left AOL
(,1012,479,00.html ) -- Wired,
USA Weekend, Atlantic Monthly, as well as magazine sites like the
Discovery Channel, Omni, House of Blues, and Newsbytes
( ) and popular content areas like
Answerman ( ) and NeverWinter
Nights ( )

But AOL's content-pruning hasn't gone unnoticed.  Fans of the departing
content areas are on the warpath. created a web page to rally public opposition to the
new pricing.  ( )  And the
latest announced closure -- AOL's popular "Web Diner" -- resulted in an
outpouring of anger from loyal AOL fans, who created web pages urging that
the area be saved.

"Keep up the great work, soldiers!" Web Diner's creator announced on their
mailing list today -- adding that her web page will soon sport a "D-Day
Counter" -- a display tracking the number of days until the AOL content
area is shut.  At least one Web Diner supporter suspects AOL's motives. 
"As long as members have access to the Web Diner, they will continue to
use the FREE web space AOL provides INSTEAD of spending the $99 per month
for AOL's virtual domain system (PrimeHost)."
( )

AOL's response has been vindictive.  One fan received a Terms of Service
warning for mailing her friends information about a petition to save 
Web Diner. ("On 7/4/97 11:54:59 PM [your] screen name sent a chain letter
via email to 1 Member(s)," the warning read.)  As members network to
counter the shut-downs, AOL quickly moved to downplay their response. 
AOL's company spokesperson told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Art
Kramer that "We've heard from some unhappy people, but just a few,"
adding, "We always get e-mail whenever we do anything." 

Behind-the-scenes, it's a different story.  "I was told by my supervisor
that AOL had instructed her to fire me," one NeverWinter Nights staffer
told the AOL List, "and if she didn't they would, 'in a "not so nice
way"'."  Harold Miles worked on NeverWinter Nights-- until he spoke to
Wired News criticizing AOL's decision to close it.
( )  "I believe the
reason had to do with a non-disclosure agreement," Miles remembered 
-- "that I never signed."  Never signed?  "In fact, I never saw it." 

This isn't AOL's first act of retaliation. "I was told that a member of
the Community Leader organization didn't like my postings..." a remote
staffer told the AOL List today. The staffer's supervisor was told that
"if she didn't change my account status, they would..."  The higher-ups
were even determined to keep the staffer finding work in a new department. 
"I was told that anywhere I tried to apply for another position I would be
given a bad recommendation "  And this has happened before.  "After
terminating the accounts of at least two Community Leaders that spoke out
about the cost-cutting measures [],
AOL's latest target is a 14-year-old Community Leader," another staffer
complained to the AOL List last month.  They believe the company was
slashing their in-house staff, saying "AOL has single-handedly cut down
AOL Productions from over 200 producers to about 20."  Days later, still
more complaints reached the AOL List.  "AOL terminated me this week with
no explanation," another Community Leader complained. 

Users are brainstorming on ways to retaliate.  The July 25 deadline still
hasn't passed for subscribers to claim their two refunds
( )
for the December-January and February-March periods.  And the Atlanta 
Journal-Constitution reports that some gamers are planning to sign onto
AOL and let their computers idle for the same amount of time they
originally devoted to games -- depriving AOL of any capacity gain on their

But U.S. subscribers aren't the only ones angry.  In a desperate bid to
shore-up overseas subscriptions, AOL has rushed out new flat-rate pricing
( ) for their U.K. 
service.  U.K. subscribers are already complaining that in fact, the new
pricing results in higher rates for subscribers using more than five hours
without signing up for the unlimited usage plans.  AOL's response?  Just
days ago, a U.K.  user's web page opposing the pricing was eliminated by
AOL.  ( )

Even non-gamers are angry with the service.  The AOL List reported
12-hours mail delays ( ) in late
June -- but problems still haven't gone away.  "I am experiencing a
_serious_ delay (sometimes 24 hours or more!) in receiving and sending
mail," read a July 2 newsgroup post.  Another poster complained of nine
hour delays for a July 2 message.  And the problems still persist, even a
week later.  Test messages sent yesterday by the AOL List took more than
eight hours to arrive on AOL.  And today mail sent more than three hours
ago has yet to be delivered. 

But the problems were even worse for users -- and AOL's response
exacerbated them. On July 5 an on-line newsletter published a complaint
they'd sent AOL two weeks earlier.  "[W]e have just learned that
Wednesday's edition of STUDIO BRIEFING, sent out at about 7:00 a.m., was
not received until Saturday afternoon...  Moreover, AOL's time stamp on
these transmissions made it appear as if we didn't even send it out until

Their mail delivery problems persisted for over a week.  Making matters
worse, AOL's response to their complaint -- twelve days later -- appeared
to be a form letter.  And it contained misinformation.  "[T]heir claim
that e-mail delays now amount to an average of only 15-45 minutes is
controverted by our own experience. We have continued to send copies of
the newsletter to our own AOL address from our regular ISP, and they
continue to be delayed by as much as 36 hours and no less than 3 hours." 
AOL's numbers were off by at least 400%

AOL's standard policy -- not notifying sites when they have decided to
block their mail ( ) -- only
compounded difficulties.  The publisher criticized AOL's unresponsiveness,
saying "thus far AOL has yet to acknowledge online that it has experienced
this failure of its mail system. On the contrary, at the very time we were
experiencing this problem, we received new marketing material from AOL in
the mail boasting about how it had put its past problems behind it and was
now able to cope with the influx of new subscribers." 

Indeed.  Pulse magazine appears this month with promotional floppy
disks -- and the accompanying flier offers six testimonials about AOL's
service in large red letters.  The dates, in much smaller black letters,
indicate that five of the testimonials are nearly a year old. 

			June 1996    -  2
			August 1996  -  3
			March 1997   -  1

Last Tuesday the Newsbytes News Network reported e-mail delays of several
hours -- or even days -- for individual subscribers. 
( ) adding that the
problems had lasted for weeks. ( ). 
Reached for comment, an AOL spokeswoman said only that upgrades are an
"ongoing process," adding that she couldn't say when the situation would

But a mailing list operator quickly e-mailed Newsbytes to inform them
problems were even worse:  "anything sent to more than one AOLer
simultaneously goes into a queue that I know now can be at least 6 days

Rex Wockner shared his experiences with the AOL List, saying AOL has "a
special address now for complaining about screwed-up incoming internet
e-mail."  (  In the middle of ongoing problems, he
coyly e-mailed AOL's postmaster.  "I am missing some 'bulk' e-mail sent to
me between June 26 and July 3..." his complaint read.  "Can you please
find my mail?" 

It may have been irrecoverably lost.  Problems have already affected users
receiving e-mailed alerts about cheap air fares.  The Atlanta
Journal-Constitution's Art Kramer reports that bulletins from both
Continental Airlines and American airlines were blocked by AOL, who had
mistaken the subscription-only mailing lists for unsolicited commercial
e-mail. How many people were affected?  "The airlines said there were
hundreds of thousands of subscribers," Kramer told the AOL List. 

Dissatisfied comments echoed across Usenet. 

	"if you want no headaches, stay off AOL..." 

	"Other ISPs tend to be much smaller, and the service tends to be
	 better.  This is why most internet old-timers aren't on AOL :-)"

	"If ya don't NEED AOL, I would never recommend getting ON AOL...
	 Bells and whistles will cost you more than just money.

	"I tell all my friends, get out from AOL before it's too late."

In fact, AOL's American users must envy the candor from the company's
executives in Britain.  "[A]bout 9 pm, everything went kaploooie!" read
the May 9 message to subscribers from Jonathan Bulkeley, Managing Director
of AOL UK.  Noting that kaplooie was "a word not found in any English
dictionary," he explained that "There was a major power outage, then a
surge, then instability in the power sources all of which added up to
about five hours of problems for AOL and other providers..."

A July 4 message was equally forthright.  "Let me cut right to the
chase..." Bulkeley confessed.  "We have had a terrible couple of days from
a network standpoint. Just about anything which could have gone wrong did.
Pieces blew up, circuits went down, members were disconnected etc., etc.." 
("I must say that these happen very regularly," one U.K. reader told the
AOL List.) 

In the face of all the flux, where do AOL executives turn for information? 
"I wake up and read the AOL List with a cup of coffee," Tatiana Gau
recently told a reporter.  AOL's Vice President of Integrity Assurance is
a Cassel fan.  "I'm a steady visitor to his AOL Watch page," she told the
Netly News ( )  "and read what he
writes. I find that a lot of his stuff is insightful -- and I'll leave it
at that." (,1012,1135,00.html ) 

But how good a job is she doing?  AOL is apparently plagued by an
inability to stop crime even in their own building, according to the
Washington Post, which reports yet another robbery at 22000 AOL Way. 
( )
On June 30 a staffer for AOL's "Virtual Leaders Academy" posted to an
in-house board, "I just received a phone call. Apparently, someone has
provided the Cadre Roster...and we are all now listed on the web."  Their
comments were accessed by hackers and forwarded to the AOL List -- and
nine days later, the complete list remains on-line, displaying home phone
numbers, screen name, and even city of residence.
( ) 

Scrambling to cover-up security problems, AOL issued other in-house memos
speaking of a "rash of compromised overhead accounts" and announcing a new
policy in which accounts with special access will no longer be
automatically collected into a single chat area.  "This was our only
option," an AOL administrator warned.  Within days, that memo was also
appearing on the web.  ( )  

Publicly Tatiana Gau had claimed that no more than a dozen of the
special-access accounts had been compromised.  But in fact, the webmaster
of "" located an in-house post stating that, since the start
of this year in just two AOL content areas, more than 70 such accounts
were compromised by hackers.  "Maybe AOL needs a new name," he writes --
"America On Lies perhaps?" ( ) 

Gau's apparently-deliberate disinformation brought an angry rebuke. 
"AOL's Head of security Tatiana Gau is trying to cover-up the nation's
least secure online services with lies," the webmaster continues.  Saying
he's seen "at least 400 overhead accounts being used by the wrong people," 
the webmaster concludes Gau is making another attempt to fight security
breaches with public-relations. ( )
"Apparently this CIA genius thinks security means convincing the public
they're secure, not actually changing anything." 

In the face of ongoing controversy, John Bulkeley took pains to assure
AOL's U.K. users that "none of the problems were related to increased
usage with the advent of unlimited access."  But can AOL survive the
ongoing service problems -- and the ongoing investigations by 36 states'
attorneys general -- that their flat-rate pricing has created?

Time will tell.


It's an important distinction -- in one two-week span in 1995, a
13-year-old girl in Kentucky and a 15-year-old boy in Seattle each
disappeared with adults they'd met on AOL. (
/1995/08/25 )  Yet yesterday the Associated Press ran a story 
describing Keir Fiore, who pleaded guilty to two counts of transporting a
13-year-old across state lines for sexual purposes -- headlined "Internet
Romeo pleads guilty in federal court."  "They didn't meet on the Internet
at all," a reporter for the the Union Leader/New Hampshire Sunday News
warned readers of a New Hampshire newsgroup--in April. "It was an America
Online chat room." 

This isn't the first such mistake ( ).
"I remember the joint press release put out by the FBI, U.S. Attorney's
office and Salem police identified Fiore having met Jessica Woehl 'on the
Internet.'," the Union-Leader's Derek Rose told the AOL List.  "[E]ven
Fiore's attorney didn't make the distinction," he noted on Usenet. 

  David Cassel
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