The AOL List: Rebel Attack

David Cassel (
Sat, 30 Aug 1997 02:34:27 -0700 (PDT)

		         R e b e l   A t t a c k



That's what one Angelfire web page is announcing.  "Were gonna screw AOL,
for the millionth time!! AUGUST starts at midnight."

Urging readers to "Come on into AOL, as we try to overload the guide
system!"  they vowed that troublemakers "will not stop until the last
minute of August 30th."  They've adopted several tactics -- including
chat-room scrolling, Instant Message bombs, "and false reporting of
violations in an attempt to overload the guide pager system."  Their odds
are good.  Mass attacks have successfully overloaded the Guide pager since
at least 1995.  ( 

Attackers have already altered the home page for AOL's Terms of Service
advisor. ,

"If yew think that StE needz a few politeness lessons," the AOL staffer's
page reads, "be gay now." Meanwhile, the notorious "Inside AOL" page has
returned to -- and attacking AOL
has even spread to novices.  "I'm not a hacker," one subscriber told the
AOL List. "I can't even program a VCR."  But homegrown software for
attacking AOL made it too easy to resist.  "One day I received a 'toxic IM
punter',"  they remembered, "and one of my friends told me she knew Steve
Case's hiding name and that it was on-line."  They located the screen name
Case frequently gives to reporters.  "I punted the screen name 'Steve C'
just for the hell of it when it signed back on."

AOL made headlines Tuesday when the Washington Post reported the latest
password-stealing scam.  "The company concedes it can do little to
squelch the scams," the Post wrote in a front-page story, "other than
alerting subscribers not to part with personal financial information

The complete text of the e-mail scam was forwarded to the AOL List on
August 12.  "It was really quite clever," one reader observed.  An e-mail
message titled "Special News Bulletin" mimicked Steve Case's boast that
"We have been working day and night to fix the busy signal problem,"
promising users "a new server which offers a higher system capacity."  An
e-mail link took users to a web page soliciting their AOL passwords and
credit card information. 

It cast a spotlight on the risk-filled climate at AOL.  Wired News cited
an analyst who says AOL's depiction of itself as a safe environment
encourages people to be more trusting.  "That's a mistake," Wired's David
Lazarus writes.  Calling the web-page scam "the latest shakedown," he
notes the predators seek AOL users for their inexperience.  ("If I were a
scammer," the analyst notes, "I'd probably go after AOL members." 
[] )  Yet in a
black-is-white pronouncement, AOL security chief Tatiana Gau told Reuters
(,4,13758,00.html)  that "The billing scam
... is really testimony to the fact that our ... mechanisms are working." 
But even Gau doesn't believe AOL's subscribers know how to protect
themselves.  The same day she told Wired News that "The same common-sense
rules that they apply in real life just go out the window when they're
sitting in the comfort of their homes."  In fact, "Yahoo!  Internet Life"
cites a security expert's belief that "some of the practices that America
Online and other online services engage in actually put consumers at risk
for harassment, stalking and online crime."

Yet in the past AOL has been notoriously slow to alert members of the
dangers.  When AOL issued their first warnings about password thieves in
early 1996, Corey Bridges, Netscape's Security Documentation Manager,
forwarded the entire letter to the Cypherpunks mailing list, commenting
"Looks like AOL is being dragged, kicking and screaming, into the world of
security."  ( 

Distrust of AOL's pronouncements have already created suspicions about
their software. "I found this in \AOL30\CCL\AOLNET.CCL," one reader told
the AOL List. 

	DsplyMsg Step 3: Connecting at 33600 bps ... 
	BaudSet 28800

"AOL doesn't really support 33.6 bps," they concluded.  "It says 33.6, and
connects at 28.8..." 

Modem issues plague the service.  Overshadowing AOL's tests of 56-Kps
modems: current users are having trouble connecting at 28.8 speeds.  One
New Jersey user found their new modem connected at that speed just twice. 
"I connect at 14.4 or not at all,"  they told the AOL List. "It's
frustrating."  Problems are everywhere.  "Most days the connect speed is
16.4," a California user reports, "and that's using a 33k modem." 

"The redials are endless," an Ohio user complained--and though their
low-speed access number disappeared when a 28.8 line was set up, "when you
connect, you usually are set up at 1200!"  The connection is never
full-speed.  "Rarely do you see anything over 19.2..." 

This belies Steve Case's earlier boasts.  "Most would agree that you need
at least 28.8 speed to be satisfied with the Web," he wrote in a December
1995 Community Update -- giving users the dubious warning that "arguably
you need ISDN or cable modem speed to really enjoy it."  But not on AOL,
Case continued, which is "optimized for slower speeds."  Twenty months
after Case's claims, a new hurdle confronts users of AOL's 3.0 client for
Windows if they're using Windows 95.  When attempting to sign off, AOL
encourages downloads of the AOL 3.0 for Windows 95 client, estimating the
following download times: 

		28.8:  1 hour, 40 minutes
		14.4: 3 hours, 15 minutes
		9600 6 hours, 30 minutes

Other users have complained about similar lengthy downloads which weren't
optional.  And performance issues could be crucial.  Saying it would make
the area "more popular than ever," Steve Case's June letter lauded
Nickelodeon Online's new design.  But the re-designed site required a
15-minute download before entering for users with 14.4 modems -- and even
at 28.8 speeds required a 7 1/2 minute wait. 

One user anticipates Steve Case's response.  "Thou shalt not covet thy
neighbor's ISP," their web page announces -- offering Case's Ten
Commandments. ( )  Indeed,
PC Magazine tested 13 national service providers, and AOL was one of two
whose overall performance was rated "Poor" -- the lowest category.
(  Meanwhile, users
fill AOL's keyword "Postmaster" with complaints.  After waiting four hours
for mail to arrive, one subscriber posted Friday "WAKE UP, AOL!  YOU
JERKS!!!!!!"  AOL has experienced delivery-delay problems going back at
least two months ( -- and one user
shared the response they received from AOL executives Wednesday.  "AOL is
aware of this problem in a few areas of E-mail service," it read.  "Please
be assured that we are working toward a solution in the near future."

A user attempting to complain about a "spam" commercial e-mail message
suffered the consequences.  "The following problems occurred while
processing your request," AOL's auto-responder replied. 

	tosspam - This AOL member's mailbox is full. 
	tosspam2 - This AOL member's mailbox is full. 
	tosspam3 - This AOL member's mailbox is full. 
	tosspam4 - This AOL member's mailbox is full. 
	tosspam5 - This AOL member's mailbox is full. 
	tosspam6 - This AOL member's mailbox is full. 
	tosspam7 - This AOL member's mailbox is full. 
	abuse - This AOL member's mailbox is full. 

AOL's problems are even affecting other ISP's.  On August 12 AOL placed
Clever.Net on their "Blocked domains" list -- meaning they would refuse to
deliver mail from any of the service's subscribers, in an effort to
pre-empt spam.  The ISP's staffers believe the block was placed in error
-- a mistake AOL has made before. ( 
The ISP retained an attorney, and AOL promised to remove the block --
after a week of failed delivery. 

But problems persisted -- and one listmaster is considering legal action
herself.  "This morning I received e-mail that was held by AOL's system
for as long as TWENTY FIVE hours before they hit my mailbox," she
complained Thursday.  "When is this situation going to be resolved???" 
Debbie Doerrlamm runs a mailing list for professional beauticians -- but
mail from her list's software wasn't going through.  "I have had enough,"
she e-mailed her 500 subscribers. "We are now all going to follow my
instructions and let AOL know that we are not happy campers...  AOL has
done NOTHING about this situation for 15 full days." 

She told her readers to send the following complaint to the company. 
"Sometime on Tuesday, August 12th, the mail stopped coming from the
list...  How much longer is this going to last?" 

"Now we shall see what happens," she told the AOL List. 

Ongoing problems affect the way people feel about AOL's users .  In the
last issue of Internet Underground magazine, one reader wrote that "I'm
disappointed by the reluctance within many features in IU to separate
criticism of AOL itself (most of it well-deserved) from critical
stereotyping of their users...I don't even fit any of the profiles IU
paints of these members, but, predictably, I'm shy of dropping the
'' card when I get on the bus.  I'll get rid of the training wheels
soon (next week, next month, whenever), and get a real bike.  Am I just
out of the club until I show up with a better provider?" 

IU's answer:  Yes. 

They titled it "mail from another AOL loser." 

Meanwhile, more content areas are leaving the service.  "On September 1,
1997, TSR will be moving to the World Wide Web," reads the announcement at
keyword TSR.  "They claim that AOL and TSR were 'unable to reach a new
contract'," one subscriber told the AOL List "and that they 'don't want to
leave', but they've 'just been given no other choice.'" 

They're joined by gaming giant Maxis -- creators of Sim City.
"It was our decision to pull out," Patrick Buechner, a PR
manager for Maxis told the AOL List. "We just didn't have the resources to
devote to that as well as our web site."  Earlier this month Wired news
compiled a list of seven additional game areas leaving AOL -- Cyberstrike,
Gemstone III, Federation, Dragon Realms, Modus Operandi, NeverWinter
Nights, and MetaSquares.
(  Content
providers like Answerman and Web Diner have also left AOL
(  -- even though Steve Case's web
page still mistakenly points readers to the old Web Diner area. 
(  A link to the original Web
Diner site (aol://4344:759.webdiner.6815943.497994116/)  leads Case's
readers to the bad news:  "We regretfully announce that the Web Diner
Forum is closing, effective July 31, 1997"

AOL's remaining pay-to-play games vie against free offerings on the web. offers many of the same games at no charge --
including Backgammon, Bridge, Hearts, Spades -- plus popular games not
available on AOL like Go, Chess, and Euchre.  Poker players are welcome,
although they're already raving about another gaming site at . 

New figures suggest AOL will hold just 12% of the on-line population by
the end of the year.
(,4,13582,00.html?dtn.head)  And AOL's
stock continues its plummet, losing 11% of its value over the last three

Can AOL survive?

Time will tell.


AOL found a champion in Websight magazine.  "John Bates, Websight's roving
reporter, sticks up for his favorite online service," one story was
headlined.  Bates penned a two-page story titled "In Defense of AOL." 

The next month, the magazine folded. 

        David Cassel
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