AOL Watch ("The AOL List"): Inside Job

David Cassel (
Thu, 16 Oct 1997 02:06:38 -0700 (PDT)

			 I n s i d e   J o b


In an act of colossal hubris, AOL announced "Shakespeare's dead.  We have
an opening." 

Ads in USA Today proclaim a contest giving aspiring writers chances to
display 400 words of their prose on AOL's sign-on screen--provided they
write about AOL features. "Lay down your quill," the pompous ad continues,
"and get thee to a keyboard..."  The "AOL Insider" contest reveals AOL's
publicity-seeking agenda. "We recommend you get up to speed on AOL by
grabbing a copy of the just-released book 'Insider's Guide to America
Online' at a Barnes and Noble near you..."

Members of the press are already skeptical of the concept of an AOL
Insider. "What a cruel joke," wrote the San Francisco Examiner's Rob Morse
last January.  "No one's an insider at AOL. The whole idea is that it's a
loose, badly functioning way for outsiders to think they are part of
something."  ( ) 
AOL's technical shortcomings are even evident in the contest's guidelines,
which include a pessimistic caveat.  "America Online reserves the right,
in its sole in discretion, to cancel or suspend this Talent Search should
computer, electronic, or system malfunctions or other causes beyond the
control of America Online corrupt the administration, security or proper
operation of the Talent Search."  (
Aspiring writers are invited to enter this mailing list's AOL insider
contest instead of AOL's.  Entries won't be screened for content
unflattering to the on-line service -- and winning essays will be made
available to AOL Watch's influential audience of 16,000 on-line

In fact, two AOL members have already found their own way to display their
writings on AOL.  "Some hacker apparently got into the system," one
content partner told "AOL Watch" Tuesday.  The welcome screen of AOL's
"Jewish Community" area shows ten people gathered around a table.  "Glaze
and Hex stopped by," it's title bar announced Saturday night. 
( ) 

They apparently continued their migrations through the service.  "Hex and
Glaze say hello" read the title bar in ABC's children's area. 
( )  Steve Case's monthly letter still
appeared at keyword "Steve Case" -- but users clicking on "This Month's
Highlights" found its title had been changed, from "This Month's
Highlights" to "Hey there sexy."  A user with the screen name "JustHacked"
ran through chat rooms scrolling the three attacked keywords -- plus four

All seven keywords soon became unavailable to users, with some displaying
the "Under Construction" logo ( ) 
Ironically, the welcome screen of the ABC area had asked, "What's going to
happen this weekend?"  Hex and Glaze had provided the answer -- but they
weren't satisfied.  "This surprise sucks" they wrote below the ABC logo. 
(Coincidentally, ABC later urged users to visit their "Express Yourself

But it's not just on-line vandals attacking AOL.  Subscribers face a daily
flood of unsolicited commercial e-mail messages clogging their mailboxes. 
"I get no less that 15 a day," one AOL Watch reader complained, "and
sometimes as much as 40 in a day."  The onslaught has become morbidly
fascinating.  "I count them and watch the trends..." (Others subscribers
report similar experiences - ) 

It's having an effect on AOL's service.  When users complain about delays
in receiving e-mail from the internet, AOL admits that one of the factors
is "the growing problem of unsolicited bulk e-mailings to AOL members,"
which apparently clogs their mail servers.  Subscribers report the delays
can be as long as three days ( ) -- and
industry observers note AOL's problems affect e-mail delivery for
other internet service providers as well.  "When a large ISP starts
refusing incoming messages -- usually because of a server breakdown -- it
causes mail delivery errors and forces ISPs to queue messages for later
resending,"  Interactive Week reported Monday.  "E-mail engineers say
America Online Inc. is a primary culprit and by its sheer size causes an
unwelcome ripple effect to other ISPs."

AOL recently took action against a company suspected of sending junk
e-mail ( ) --
but one subscriber expressed concern that AOL had only gone after one. 
"It would seem like they are trying to be seen to be doing 'something'," 
the subscriber complained, "rather than tackling the problem on the large
scale that exists."  Indeed.  In Steve Case's October update, he announced
AOL's plan to combat the problem utilized a three-pronged approach -- but
the third prong was "Keeping you informed about our efforts" (and leaving
further action up to subscribers by informing them "what you can do to

Case's record on the problem is abysmal.  Over a year ago -- in his
September 1996 update -- Case announced that junk e-mail was "the number
one complaint we hear from our members," and promised "we are going to act
very aggressively."  In retrospect, Case's plan looks like a recipe for
failure.  AOL contacted the culprits, but -- predictably - - "Several junk
e-mailers refused to work with AOL to limit junk e-mail or did not respond
to our inquiries at all."  AOL attempted to initiate filters, but they
weren't as powerful as filters on other e-mail programs, and their success
has been dubious.  One year later, Case has nearly conceded defeat,
writing in his monthly update "the reality is that, so far, none of these
efforts have had much of a positive impact on stemming this problem."

AOL may even be responsible for part of the problem.  Keyword "Spam
Update" gives AOL's 9 million users the following advice for handling
unsolicited commercial e-mail: "If the re-mailer gives instructions on how
to be removed from the distribution list, follow those instructions
exactly."  That may actually exacerbate the problem, one long-time spam
opponent points out.  "Following the 'removal instructions' found in most
spam is largely an exercise in futility," Ron Newman told AOL Watch, "and
may even get you added to more spammers' lists."  It's a known tactic to
confirm the validity of e-mail addresses before sending MORE
advertisements.  "AOL should know better than to give such bad advice." 

AOL has been giving that advice for over a year. 

The September, 1996 document also advises users to "Immediately forward
junk e-mails"  to screen-name "TOSspam".  But that's impossible, according
to one AOL Watch reader. "TOSSPAM has been full and not accepting mail for
more than 24 hours!" they complained Tuesday.  The next day the user found
out how long it takes to send e-mail to that address.  "It turned out to
be over 36 hours," they announced Wednesday.  "Unbelievable." 

"Thanks for your continued support!" Case's September 1996 update
announced blithely. "Warm regards...."  This month Case concedes that "Too
many of our members are finding their mailbox's clogged..."  In an act of
desperation, AOL took the fight to Washington, where they've begun
"working with federal lawmakers to craft a workable anti-junk mail

There's another level to the problem.  "I'm two months away from being
14," one subscriber told AOL Watch, "and even then...what is the most
FREQUENT thing I find in my mailbox on AOL (which I normally only use
cause all my friends are on it.)?  PORN!"   Steve Case acknowledges this
exacerbates the junk e-mail situation -- "the problem is worsening, in
that a growing number of these junk e-mailers are sending mail that is not
just annoying, but also offensive." 

But ironically, legitimate advertisers also find their paths made more
difficult by AOL.  In an effort to conceal slow responses from AOL's
system, AOL stores copies of web pages on their machines in Virginia.  One
marketing expert told WebWeek that AOL's own studies concede this reduces
the traffic web sites detect by 30 percent -- but a Colorado monitoring
service calculates the under-reporting actually represents an average of
76 percent of web site traffic.  

One web page displays "A Special Note to Folks Accessing From AOL &
Prodigy" warning about another unwelcome result.  AOL's policy "can cause
a user to feel a bit lost when old cached pages are presented instead of
the new ones."  There's not much that the service -- or the AOL users
-- can do. "We'd like to recommend contacting member services of these
organizations if you find this is a persistent problem,"  the web page
advises. ( ) 

In addition to the slow web browser, slow e-mail, and slow responses to
customer problems, some users are experiencing temporary brown-outs of
various service features.  "There is a running joke in my house," one
subscriber told AOL Watch.  "AOL provides all services, but it comes down
to 'Which service is available today?'" 

Perhaps the most compelling critique of AOL's system comes from the new
film "Peacemaker".  Accompanied by Nicole Kidman, George Clooney breaks
the nose of a criminal named Schumacher, extorting a password to break
into an on-line computer, steal a truck company's invoices and determine
which vehicle is crossing Europe with stolen nuclear warheads.  After
escaping the Viennese mafia in a high-speed car-chase, Clooney returns to
his hotel room and grieves for the loss of his life-long friend, who was
killed in the gun-fight, leaving his 16-year-old daughter an orphan. 

Suddenly a sound file says "You've got mail." 

Clooney asks, "What's that?" 

Nicole Kidman answers, "I e-mailed Schumacher's files to my AOL account
before I logged out." 

The elapsed time must've been at least an hour. 


Though MAD magazine's parent company, DC Comics, has a content area on
AOL, the magazine took merciless aim at AOL last May. 

"Why did so many of you automatically misinterpret that 'unlimited
service' was 'service that you can use as much as you like'?" Steve Case's
parody doppleganger asks.  "It actually means 'service you can't even use
the same as when it used to cost half the price'."

Mad also felt AOL's definition of "insider" required some gullibility. 
"If you still don't understand how words can mean the exact opposite of
what they sound like, go to keyword: INSIDER for a top-secret explanation
that's only available to you!"   ( ) 

        David Cassel
        More Information -


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