The AOL List: Outages

David Cassel (
Fri, 1 Aug 1997 02:35:38 -0700 (PDT)

			    O u t a g e s


Thursday is the first anniversary of AOL's 19-hour outage.  To celebrate,
AOL blocked log-ins from users nationwide. 

One San Francisco DJ complained on the air that they'd been unable to
access the system for over two hours.  "Goodbye!" the software barked as
users attempted to log on.  Reuters reports the shut-out lasted for at
least an hour (

Problems were international.  "Last time this happened Jonathan Bulkeley
assured us that it was because 'pieces blew up, circuit boards went down'
etc," one U.K. reader told the AOL List -- adding that Bulkeley had
insisted it had nothing to do with unlimited access.  If that's the case,
the cynical user asks, "what is it this time?"

Keyword: WHAT'S WRONG tallied the damage for U.K. users. 

    "50% of members logged onto AOL through the Internet will not be able
     able to send or receive instant messages." 

    "Members may have intermittent login problems." 

    "Members may have problems uploading and downloading Mail and

    "Some members will be unable to publish to their web pages." 

But AOL was silent when it came to informing U.S. subscribers.  American
users seeking keyword "Whats" are offered its nearest match -- a "preview"
of AOL's Gopher/WAIS tool (which was introduced in 1994.)

The outage thwarted AOL's plans to be more forthcoming about system
shutdowns.  Throughout the week AOL's sign-off screen advised users that
"AOL service will be unavailable Wed., July 30, 4 a.m. - 7 a.m. EDT, while
we perform routine maintenance."  One day later, shortly before AOL's peak
usage period, the service hit the unscheduled outage which, for some,
lasted nearly as long.  (Thursday after blocking sign-ons, the exit screen
advised users to "Please try again, or use another local access number" --
though identical problems occurred when they did.) 

Irresponsible answers pervade the service.  Side-stepping blame for mail
problems, and ignoring the AOL-only nature of most of them, AOL's
postmaster asserted to users that increased e-mail from the internet
represented "a situation that is affecting the entire industry."  But his
announcement at keyword "Postmaster" revealed yet another unpublicized
policy:  AOL gives a lower priority to mail that wasn't sent from an AOL
user's account.  Selective delivery apparently accounts for the delays
many mailing lists have observed.  A July 29 post to a "Simpson's" mailing
list from its moderator reported that "Apparently, AOL has blocked mail
from Simpsons-L since July 2.  This was because there were a large number
of invalid AOL addresses on the mailing list and this alerts the 'spam
catcher' at AOL." The moderator praised the readers who didn't passively
accept AOL's problems.  "Everyone who wrote to AOL to ask what was going
on deserves a pat on the back." 

Ironically, Ziff-Davis published a story one week ago headlined "AOL
Putting Its Problems behind it?" 
(  They cited a
study performed last month -- in which 34% of sample calls failed to
connect to the service. ( 
That's apparently good enough for AOL -- an executive commented "We're
exactly where we wanted to be at this point."  (Then conceded later that
AOL's plans nonetheless include 20,000 additional modems each month for
the foreseeable future.) 

"If the Internet is the Information Superhighway, we're the Information
One-Lane Dirt Road with a Toll Booth every 200 yards!"  according to
"Steve Nutcase."  (  In a parody
in the August 1997 issue of Mad magazine, he argues that he's not worried
about problems from hackers like Kevin Mitnick.  "My subscribers' card
numbers are accessible to someone far more dangerous..."  the executive
explains. "Me!"

The parody proved accurate.  Even after AOL backed down from a plan to
distribute telephone numbers for their customers -- over 3% of the U.S. 
population -- to outside telemarketers, distrust lingered.  Last Friday's
Wall Street Journal pointed out the AOL reversal came only after the
Attorney General of New York contacted them -- and an angry customer
wasn't satisfied when AOL promised the pitches would come only from AOL
themselves. ("The call is still being made -- I could care less who makes
it.")  New York's attorney general noted that if AOL hires outside
telemarketers to phone customers, "we will express our concerns to AOL and
explore our options..."

Ironically, at one time AOL's promotions boasted "No intrusive advertising
like with other online services."
(  Things change.  The Journal
noted Friday that AOL "wouldn't comment" on whether their new policy would
still increase the number of phone pitches their customers received.  Now
as automated replies from refer users to to determine an AOL user's address,
cynical readers laugh at the sentence stating "we cannot and will not
divulge private information about members."

"Seems all you need is the right amount of money," one user told the AOL

A user known as Jason Killrot lost his faith while writing a letter to
Steve Case. "I realize you won't read down this far," he wrote, "and you
will just send me a form letter that covers 'selling AOL numbers to
telemarketers'.  So kiss my ass..." 

"Dear jkillrot," read AOL's response.  "I am responding to your recent
message on behalf of Steve Case.  Thank you for taking the time to write
to us."  

"We appreciate your feedback regarding our marketing policies," the
response continued.  (  KillRot's
opinion had been firm.  "IF I WANT TO BUY SOMETHING, I WILL GO TO THE

AOL responded that the new offerings would be a "real benefit to members." 

Publicly AOL claimed their marketing plans are consensual because users
can opt out.  But one local TV newscaster quipped that's meaningless since
users "Don't know who to send the request to."  "Exactly," his co-anchor
answered, "and then it gets lost in the mail along the way." 

Their remarks were eerily prophetic.  "I tried to send mail so I wouldn't
get bombed by telemarketers," one subscriber told the AOL List, "and look
at what happened: 

        Subj:   Warning: could not send message for past 4 hours
        Date:   97-07-25 10:10:45 EDT
        From: (Mail Delivery Subsystem)

Privacy experts argue that "No telemarketing" should be the default
setting -- without requiring subscribers to pro-actively seek exclusion. 
But the Washington Post reports that even users who tried to block the
telemarketers at keyword "Marketing Preferences"  found it was too busy to
be accessed.

And upon reaching it, users are informed that "From time to time, AOL may
still need to contact you to discuss your account."  Despite last week's
reversal, C|Net's Janet Kornblum broke the news.  "Members are going to
see more ads, and they're going to get more telephone calls." 
(,4,12825,00.html)  "The fear that many
people have had about the collection and use of online information is no
longer hypothetical," a privacy activist told the reporter. "AOL is
monitoring the ways in which subscribers use the service and is using that
information for marketing purposes.

"Here's how you can let AOL know how you feel about them 'junking' your
phone,"  a subscriber named Bob Arkow told the AOL List.  "Call them at
(888) 265-8002.  This is the 'rotary dial' line for sales.  Tell them
that you are a customer (or if you are not a customer, then you are
'potential customer') and ask them to put you on their 'Do not call list'
and demand that you be given a copy of their written 'Do Not Call Policy'. 
You can ask them to e-mail, FAX or snail mail this. 

"If they refer you to a non-toll-free number, (such as their legal
department or home office), then remind then that the FCC has mandated
that 'the TCPA shall be implemented at no cost to the consumer'. " 

Arkow says he successfully sued Bank of America.  "Anti-telemarketing
information is all over the internet," he observes, citing a telemarketing
executive's complaints to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram about over 900 web
sites (
The article cites one page which announces "If you are a telemarketer,

Ironically, the page was created by an AOL user. 

"This telemarketing incident shows that AOL views its members as property
that can be sold," Arkow concludes.  "If any of your readers are refused
the policy by AOL, I can give them more documents, including a letter from
the FCC that says that companies must provide the policy, and that failure
to do so can lead to civil action, should they want to take AOL to small
claims court (a very easy thing to do, by the way!)." 

How would Steve Case defend ongoing telemarketing?  Mad magazine's
parodists have him saying, "if it means money in my pocket, I can defend
anything..."  But will AOL continue making greater and greater demands on
their users?  A Thursday night exit screen seems to hold the answer. 
"Exclusively on AOL," it offered.  "Sell your immortal soul for a sneek
peek at Spawn." 


Over 50 people packed into the chat room for the final wake.  One user
described themself as handing a rose to another user, saying "Put this on
top of Web Diner's grave after tonight." 

Regulars moved to the web ( -- and
pondered AOL's decision.  "AOL has often declared itself as a community,"
one Web Diner staffer told the AOL List, "But AOL's new policies and greed
are overshadowing the friendliness that once characterized the AOL

Three hours later, keyword "WebDiner" was gone.  AOL had replaced it with
a cheerful pop-up window advising users that "Although the Web Diner forum
has been closed, there are many similar areas of interest to check out on
America Online!" 

   David Cassel
   More Information			


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