The AOL List: Mis-Guided

David Cassel (
Thu, 24 Jul 1997 13:42:32 -0700 (PDT)

			 M i s - G u i d e d


AOL's latest money-generating tactic created a national controversy. 

Earlier today AOL's stock tumbled 2 3/8 -- forfeiting over 3 1/2 percent
of its value in a single day -- as news organizations across the country
lambasted the plan to sell users' phone numbers (reported in last week's
AOL List.  ( ),4,12703,00.html

"Welcome to the latest 'member benefit' for customers of America Online," 
wrote the Wall Street Journal:  "phone calls from telemarketers."  Calling
it "a quiet move that could alienate customers and raise privacy concerns"
they quoted a member who says "I'm horrified." 

Outrage was everywhere.  "Once again, AOL is surreptitiously disclosing
information about their customers without any notice..." David Banisar,
staff counsel with Electronic Privacy Information Center, told C|Net.
(,4,12703,00.html )  "People are not
disclosing this information so they can be bothered at dinnertime by
telemarketers."  Evan Hendricks, who called attention to earlier incidents
( ) where AOL sold subscriber
information, added that AOL was "doing what they want to do to exploit
people's data, and they continually try to bury the notice in a place
where few people are likely to look..."  In an interview with the Wall
Street Journal, one potential telemarketer claimed not to know why
"everyone's making such a big deal about this" -- but a staffer at the
Center for Democracy and Technology didn't buy it.  "I would not be at all
surprised to see a member backlash."

Faced with unfavorable publicity, AOL abruptly reversed their policy
(,4,12775,00.html) -- or at least part of
it. In an on-line announcement, Steve Case attempted damage control by
being more forthcoming about AOL's policies:  "We rent addresses of

Case conceded that "we do plan to try telemarketing as well," and
acknowledged that "We should have been clearer about the fact that we
changed the Terms of Service..." Case even agrees that "by not being more
proactive," AOL generated a lot of concern.  But Case finally admits that,
though AOL backed off plans to rent subscriber phone numbers to outside
telemarketers in the future, AOL's members will still get telemarketing
calls -- from AOL. ( ) 

It's just the latest incident in a desperate scramble for cash.  AOL must
be eagerly awaiting Friday -- the final deadline for members to apply for
their cash refunds for service problems between December and March.  
( ) But their next
step may involve eliminating AOL's chat room guides.  "They are having a
'major reorganization' of the Guide program," one staffer told the AOL
List.  "Someone in-house decided it's 'not needed'."

AOL has already pulled the Guide application from the Leaders job area. 
Now, they aren't taking applications to replace Guides who've left, and
they cancelled the last guide-training class.  Other sources say AOL even
disbanded the Guide recruitment team.  "The person they put in charge of
reorganizing the Guides, Teri Myers, has made it no secret she has a ton
of animosity towards the guides," they complained.  Myers' posts to Guide
bulletin boards have been "flaming, belligerent and antagonistic" -- and
the new plan may begin after AOL releases their 4.0 software.  "They will
have a few new Member's Tools in it, like a 'permanent ignore' that will
go by the member's name and can't be 'broken' by leaving and re-entering
the room...  AOL thinks that this will 'empower' the members to be able to
handle all of AOL's problems, and they won't need Guides." 

It's another attempt to mimic powerful features that have been available
on the internet for years.  "They want to make it more like IRC," the
Guide complained, "with member-created rooms having a 'channel operator'
who will be able to kick and ban people from their rooms."  Chat room
hosts will also be given the ability to gag disruptive members -- but AOL
may already have started the new policy.  "They have told us to stop
telling people to use GUIDEPAGER," one Guide observed -- apparently in
hopes of replacing it with e-mailed reports about offenders.  "Summon a
Guide" appears in only one of the three menus at keyword TOS -- and users
have to click through three screens before reaching the option, which is
listed after two others about e-mailing AOL or cancelling the report.  The
same obfuscating menus appear when users access keyword "GuidePager." 
AOL's new casualness is evident in the "Report a Violation"  option, where
AOL concedes processing of reports may take up to 48 hours.  "At the
current time, members have great difficulty in getting a Guide to a
problem area,"  another Guide told the AOL List.  "Most often Guidepagers
go unanswered, and if one does get an answer, it's usually that a Guide is
not available and that the member should use ignore and report the
violation to TOS him/herself." 

In addition, "Creators of 'Toxic Profiles' are not being terminated," the
Guide continued.  A Thursday morning search revealed over 200 member
profiles containing text strings which cause a General Protection Fault
when the profile is accessed--and the Guide complained the profiles
remained on-line after complaints were filed.  The bug exploited by the
profiles has existed for several months.  "I find it amusing to ask the
technical representatives to look at my profile," one hacker gloated, "and
seeing them get kicked off." 

One Guide attributes AOL's policy to willful blindness -- "they want to
not KNOW how bad it is out here."  Another asks, "Just how desperate is
AOL for revenue?" 

Indeed.  One HotWired columnist cited an investment banking firms
financial report quantifying the rule-keepers' toll.  In a single quarter,
AOL deleted more than one-sixth of their new accounts, some for bad credit
cards, but the rest for violating AOL's Terms of Service.  
( ) 

Now AOL is even using their Terms of Service as leverage in contract
negotiations.  One content provider says AOL promised to relax restrictions
on their area IF they charged users $10 a month, and split the take with
AOL.  ( )  Julie Gordon
created the "Mad about Music" area --but now she's just mad at AOL. 
"[T]hey wanted me to charge for a Terms of Service exemption," she told
Wired News. ( ) 
Instead, she's announced the area will shut August 1 -- and at least one
of the area's users commented that if the area closes, "I go too."  The
forum should have a new home soon.  A January article in The Web magazine
noted that when the area was originally created, AOL deleted its folders,
"saying that the proceedings were simply 'too negative' " -- until another
service offered to host it. 

Rather than reverse their policy, an unapologetic AOL spokesperson told
Wired "It's likely that we will be charging for other premium areas down
the line." ( )

AOL's financial problems have forced them to pursue every possible avenue. 
Even boxes of Chex cereal now contain AOL's software -- and it also 
appears as a kind of bonus track on Sarah McLaughlin's newest CD.  But
AOL's latest moves are straining relations with content providers even
further.  After complaining on the AOL List about AOL's treatment of
content partners ( ), Pictures of
the World found that AOL had deactivated their account -- "even though the
account executive for our forum had assured us that our screen names would
be transferred to paying accounts as we had requested."  Whether AOL's
action was careless or vindictive, "This makes worthless thousands of
dollars worth of color brochures, letterhead, envelopes and business

But the latest measures may go too far.  Several observers identified the
major drawback in relying on user reports of inappropriate behavior:  AOL
has no way of verifying whether the incidents reported actually occurred. 
In the past, AOL has mistakenly terminated users who REPORTED the
violations.  "There are stories of loyal, helpful, AOLers reporting these
scammers and then having THEIR OWN accounts terminated," one web-zine
commented. ( )
A 10th grade student described his losing battle with hackers to the AOL
List.  "They sent fake TOS reports repeatedly--and our account was

His conclusion:  AOL could stop the problems--"but they don't."  Hackers
have already used a variation of the forged complaints to trick AOL into
temporarily shutting a user web page recruiting for the Ku Klux Klan. 
( )  The 10th-grader left his AOL
experience sadder but wiser.  "They're in it for the money." 

Publicly AOL's in-house staff claims they haven't solidified plans for
the Guide program.  "They're full of shit," a Guide complains.  "They're
basically stringing everyone along to TOS and work for free for them until
4.0 comes out."  Suspicious policies are already being implemented.  "They
recently instructed us to enter our Billing information at Keyword
BILLING, even though we all have non-billed accounts.  They claim this is
for registration," the Guide noted, "but would not answer any questions
about security for our information or accounts."  One message being
forwarded to members captures the prevailing sentiment:  "AOL To
Volunteers:  Drop Dead." 

Remote staffers paying with checking accounts face other hazards.  "The
anti-fraud program that the Billing Department uses is randomly
terminating these accounts," one in-house memo reported.  It urged
staffers to switch to credit card payments (noting later that "America
Online incurs additional expense in providing a checking account billing
option.")  The problem wasn't repaired until Monday at 4 p.m.  
( ) -- suspiciously, the
same day AOL delayed implementation of premium pricing... 
( ) 

Many staffers are now resisting giving their billing information, another
Guide reports, after recently-uncovered security breaches.  "Do I really
want to provide my private information to a company that can't even keep
its INTERNAL employees information confidential," one poster noted on an
in-house bulletin board.  As
enters its fourth week of displaying the in-house staff's phone numbers
and screen names, concern mounts.  "Today I register to be a Community
Leader," the post continued.  "Tomorrow I get attacked by some psycho." 

Like AOL's subscribers, AOL's remote staffers don't know who to trust.  "I
had to change my phone number twice the last year," another Guide
complained, "from someone getting my personal information."  Twice?  "AOL
is full of in-house hackers." 


AOL's software was packaged with a CD-ROM game distributed with Chex
cereal -- and customers dreading the on-slaught of telemarketers must've
shuddered when they read its slogan: 

	"Ready!  Aim!  Zorch!" 

On the CD-ROM, AOL's logo appears next to the evil slime-toting creature. 

        David Cassel
        More Information -


  Please forward with subscription information and headers.   To subscribe
  to this list, type your correct e-mail address in the form at the bottom
  of the page at -- or send e-mail to MAJORDOMO@CLOUD9.NET
  containing the phrase SUBSCRIBE AOL-LIST in the the message body.  

  To unsubscribe from the list, send a message to MAJORDOMO@CLOUD9.NET
  containing the phrase UNSUBSCRIBE AOL-LIST.