The AOL List: One Year Itch

David Cassel (
Fri, 10 Oct 1997 22:26:26 -0700 (PDT)

			O n e   Y e a r   I t c h


"When you deal with AOL, anything is possible." 

That's what one AOL List reader said when they received a suspicious
e-mail.  It claimed to be from an ex-AOL programmer laid off in September,
warning that AOL planned to snoop through the contents of any subscriber's
hard drive with secret features built into their upcoming software
upgrade.  It's a hoax, one AOL content provider told the AOL List. After
talking to AOL staffers, they'd learned that in fact, "none of the AOL 4.0
developers have been laid off since the project started."  In a piece
titled "Killer AOL cookies - not!"  Ziff-Davis News' Matt Broersma says
the e-mail's only legitimate distinction is it "stands out as a piece of
creative writing."

36 AOL List readers came forward with copies of the message they'd
received , which contained over 1500 e-mail addresses.
(  One user had already
e-mailed copies to the attorneys general in Idaho, Virginia, and New
Mexico, as well as the Federal Communications Commission, the Securities
Exchange Commission, and President Clinton.  Reporters were contacted at
the Boston Globe, the Baltimore City Paper, and a television station in
Chicago, and it appeared on at least five mailing lists, plus newsgroups
as diverse as, rec.gambling.sports, and alt.romance. "NOTE
TO PIERRE SALINGER," one suspicious Usenet poster announced, "Do not run
to the press with this letter...."

Ironically, AOL does track user movements across their service--a serious
and very real privacy violation which was decried by David Sobel, counsel
for the Electronic Privacy Information Center, this August.

Though the snooping is confined to users movements through AOL, "This is
potentially a far more serious privacy violation than the sale of phone

If a rumor sounds too wild to be true, it probably isn't.  "I just ran
across a .jpg file on a web site that shows Steve Case and Bill Clinton
burning their draft cards together," one Usenet post announced recently. 
"They were wearing matching tie-dyed t-shirts and love beads.  Steve had
REALLY long hair too." 

"Is this picture a fake?" 

One more rumor should be put to rest.  A spurious chain letter urges users
to contact an AOL address allegedly belonging to the American Cancer
Society, saying that forwarding the e-mail on behalf of a dying girl named
Jessica will generate additional funds for cancer research.  It doesn't. 
"This particular chain letter with its heartbreaking story appears to have
struck an emotional chord with online users," the American Cancer Society
announced -- though in fact, the address cited is invalid.
"Although we are very concerned that the American Cancer Society's name
has been used to manipulate the online public, we applaud the good
intentions of all who participated in this letter," they added.  In a
parody of similar chain letters, Kim Cirocco cites the non-existent
"Wish-Upon-a-Star Foundation", and asks readers to mail her AOL disks. 
(  But the American
Cancer Society saw a silver lining.  "We are pleased to note that there
are so many caring individuals out there and hope that they will find
another way to support cancer research."  Like every rumor, there's a
kernel of truth.  "Jessica Mydek's story, whether true or false, is
representative of that of many cancer patients who benefit daily from the
efforts of legitimate cancer organizations nationwide."

The kernel of truth in the software rumor is a deep distrust of AOL. 
After a flattering depiction of Steve Case appeared in Time magazine,
angry AOL subscribers came forward with their own assessment.  "How happy
would you be if you purchased a television set and it remained blank every
other time you turned it on?"  one letter to the editor complains. 
"Nothing has changed at AOL..." another agrees.  "It is still next to
impossible to sign on during prime time."  A third concludes that Steve
Case is newsworthy only "as a man with more dissatisfied customers than
anyone else on the planet."

Even celebrities are cynical.  In a 1995 show, David Letterman suggested
his true feelings about America Online.  "All I know about the internet is
that after the show, some of the Late Night staff go home and have sex
with strangers."  And recently in AOL's "Late Show" area, Letterman added
the "Top Ten Signs You've Been Spending Too Much Time On AOL."  Number
two:  "You actually read those 'Community Updates' from Steve Case." 


In fact, in the October update Case concedes that "We're not finished with
our infrastructure expansion," and, acknowledging AOL's unwillingness to
cut back marketing, attempts to lower expectations, admitting that with
AOL, "given our continued growth, will likely always be adding capacity." 
Yet nearly one year after AOL's move to flat-rate pricing, they've still
failed to resolve problems delivering e-mail. "I could reach my
out-of-state friends and business associates faster by walking there," 
one angry subscriber told the San Francisco Chronicle -- describing months
of problems with e-mail delivery they say affect thousands of AOL users.

A subscriber in Minnesota reported a four-day delay for one test message
-- and another message simply vanished.  AOL's Senior Vice President of
Technology told the paper the situation is "improving" -- "but we have our
work cut out."  A Vice President of Marketing quickly blamed most of the
delays on the internet -- but AOL's postmaster has acknowledged AOL
de-prioritizes delivery of mail if it isn't sent by an AOL user.  Gang
concedes it takes fifteen times as long for mail sent from a non-AOL
account.  Then his boast of average delivery times of within fifteen
minutes were contradicted by Matt Korn, AOL's Senior Vice President of
Technology, who admitted to the paper that it can take hours for AOL to
deliver e-mail. 

Flat-rate pricing divided AOL's loyalties.  Their highest-paying customers
now are their advertisers, eager to pay millions of dollars to pitch
products to AOL subscribers. Servicing those subscribers becomes a
side-line.  A former WebDiner staffer told Wired News things have changed
at meetings between AOL and forum managers, where "you never hear about
community anymore. It's advertising. It's dollars. It's Wall Street."

The Chicago Tribune's Jim Guterman believes commercial online services are
doomed for just that reason.  "[T]hey've adopted a revenue model based on
annoying paying customers by subjecting them to advertisements in every
corner and junk e-mail even more frequently." 
(,1040,3,0400.html)  Friday
users signing on saw ads for a scanner -- but now pop-up ads follow them
throughout service.  Some ads even come in two parts, requiring users to
view two separate screens before continuing.  Ads appear in chat rooms,
and on user mailboxes -- which, due to AOL's mail filters are often
clogged with unsolicited commercial e-mail already.  ("AOL's subscribers
can see ads on their mailboxes as well as in them," goes one joke.)  One
unattended account received over 150 messages in less than a month. 
(  Ironically, one of the headers

AOL's own needs for revenue know no bounds.  AOL even takes a cut of money
donated to the "Friends of Jewish Community Online," according to Wired
News. (  AOL hasn't
shown a profit since last December -- which has led to a series of
desperate schemes to compromise user privacy in exchange for money from
advertisers.  In the face of AOL's predatory practices, concerned
subscribers band together.  In fact, all AOL List subscribers took part in
the first act of a national outcry when AOL altered their Terms of Service
to allow the sale of subscriber phone numbers to telemarketers.  "Writer
and AOL critic David Cassel discovered the change," the Boston Globe wrote
July 25 "and spread the word to newspapers and on-line publications."

An ad hoc network distributes information about AOL's policies.  For every
562 subscribers to AOL, there's a reader on the AOL List.  In just one
year, the mailing list has grown to 16,000 readers, averaging more than
forty new readers per day--much to AOL's chagrin.  "I'll discuss 99 out of
100 things you ask," AOL spokeswoman Tricia Primrose told a St. Paul
reporter, "but I'm going to pass on David Cassel."
(  After one reader
talked to some AOL staffers, one question remained.  "Does David have a

But the need for the information runs deep.  "Your information tells me
I'm not alone,"  one reader told the AOL List--identifying themselves as
"another dissatisfied customer."  "You guys are performing a very valuable
service, when you look at the ridiculously bad service of AOL," added Mark
Glaser--a technology writer whose work has appeared in the Los Angeles
Times, C|Net, and Wired News.  "As a reluctant AOL user, I'm always miffed
at busy signals or 4-day-old mail.  Then I get a message from the AOL List
and I realize just what AOL's been screwing up, and why I've been

"David Cassel's AOL List provides a much-needed watchdog service and
reality check on the constantly metastatizing Internet Blob that is AOL," 
agrees Boardwatch columnist Thom Stark.  "Without it, AOL's long-suffering
user community would be worse off than it is...hard as that is to
imagine."  In fact, the AOL List has picked up support from the journalism
community.  "These guys do the digging to get AOL's dirty little secrets,"
Glaser added.  "I appreciate that, because it gives me a good counterpoint
to AOL's PR department."  Janelle Brown of Wired News agrees.  She urged
users to "Forget Ted Leonsis's 'announcements' -- every one of the 8
million AOL subscribers should be reading the AOL List instead to find out
what's really going on in their community."  Wired News' Michael Stutz
called the AOL List "a hilarious, sad and sometimes outrageous look at the
day-to-day happenings of the 'world's largest ISP'." Even Robert Seidman,
who publishes a competing newsletter, had a positive comment. "I'll say
this for Cassel, I admire his persistence.  Cassel relentlessly examines
AOL looking for anything and everything that might be wrong with it." 

Ultimately, the news media even followed-up stories which first appeared
on the AOL List.

But it's AOL List readers that make the newsletter what it is.  The AOL
List has received over 2000 messages since it began publication last
October 10.  Over 4 megabytes of responses carried grass-roots reports
from users of the service.  It's as though 16,000 readers united into an
AOL Watch community. 

To reflect that spirit, starting next week the newsletter will be re-named
"AOL Watch."  Soon an HTML edition of the newsletter will be available.
And a web site has been unveiled.

User-submitted logos are on display at

The page will be updated daily with comments from AOL subscribers and
mailing list readers, with news and information every day--and four links
to news from around the web. 

Archives for Year One of the AOL Watch are on-line at . 

Welcome to year two. 


In a classic piece of bad timing, AOL purchased a banner ad on the Netly
News the day it ran a story on the mass-mailing selling child pornography. 
At the top of story, "Kiddie Prone," the ad read:  "Your very own AOL
Business.  AOL.  The company that makes online work." 

        David Cassel


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