AOL Watch ("The AOL List"): Private Lives

David Cassel (
Mon, 27 Oct 1997 05:12:42 -0800 (PST)

		   P r i v a t e   L i v e s


According to Timothy Andrews, Online Services Editor for Dow Jones &
Company, "100,000 people a day visit the Dow Jones Business Center --
making it one of the top 10 sites on America Online."  But not any more. 

"America Online has adopted a new strategy of paying less money to
publishers from your monthly subscription and instead requiring publishers
to generate most of their revenue from the sale of advertising and in the
sale of products directly to you," the editor writes in an on-line
announcement.  "Given the significant editorial resources required to
produce Dow Jones Business Center each day, this strategy makes it
impossible for us to continue the area after Dec. 31, 1997."  It's
apparently because of only-on-AOL stinginess.  "[W]e invite you to read
our news on other online services," Andrews concludes, "or to visit The
Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition on the World Wide Web at"

Andrews states firmly that "I regret America Online's decision."  But he's
not alone -- Wired, Atlantic, USA Weekend, Omni, Newsbytes, House of
Blues, AnswerMan, Web Diner -- and many other AOL content areas -- all
have left AOL, just in the last twelve months. 

And the exodus continues.  "On November 1, 1997, Doctor Gamewiz will be
leaving America Online,"  reads the message at keyword "GameWiz"...

Ironically, last year Case gave as one of his New Year's resolutions "To
provide you with even more -- and even better -- content."  (Later that
year Case's Community Update even declared the Dow Jones area one of AOL's
best.)  In reality, though, AOL is scrambling to make up revenue lost from
their switch to flat-rate pricing -- and in the process, they're DRIVING
AWAY many content providers.  (In a final indignity, the GameWiz file
libraries were placed off-limits to users Friday, as hackers boasted they
had hit the content area for a third time...)

AOL's policies have fostered unhappiness in other ways too, according to
one content producer.  Carl Purcell, co-founder of "Pictures of the
World," wrote in June that "What has happened (or failed to happen) in
connection with our forum since the Partner's Conference is so shameful
and deceptive that it borders on the unbelievable."

He alleges AOL committed hundreds of acts of copyright infringement by
using the forum's art without permission--and he's filed a lawsuit. 
"AOL spokeswoman Tricia Primrose initially said the dispute stemmed from
the Purcells being 'unhappy with our decision' to cancel their forum," the
Washington Post reports.  But after several calls from the paper, the
spokeswoman "said the pictures the Purcells had complained about would be
removed," conceding that "There were pictures we did miss."

Meanwhile, AOL's reshuffled their remaining content into new "channels" --
and users aren't happy.  "Over the last couple of days, when I log off, my
computer is held captive from four to six minutes while AOL arbitrarily
adds files to my computer for their supposed new features," one user
complains.  It's cause for concern.  "Considering the lack of security at
AOL, you can imagine how pleased I am when AOL, without asking first,
dumps stuff from THEIR system to mine."

"I would certainly never download anything from AOL--if I had any say-so
in it, that is." 

Another user described the process.  "Upon clicking 'sign off' I get some
bogus window asking me if I wanted something or other," they told AOL
Watch, "but I was late for work so I didn't read it and clicked the
'cancel' button -- and it starts downloading some file called Riptide.udt. 
And at 14.4 the download will take 14 minutes."  The download was
non-consensual.  "The only way to stop it was to reboot the computer." 

AOL's on-line announcement concedes that the download will take "between 10
and 20 minutes depending on the speed of your modem."  Ignoring the
ominous implications of their statement that "The whole process is
automatic," AOL urges users signing off to "kick back, and let the new
channels happen." 

Then AOL takes control of the user's systems -- though they seem to have
trouble running even their own.  Wired News reports that AOL's Influence
channel "apparently failed to launch as planned on Thursday afternoon."  
( ) 

The desperate search for content ultimately led AOL to expand their
agreement with Rosie O'Donnell.  Since October 20 the talk-show host has
promised viewers "Interactive Mondays" via AOL -- but some feel betrayed. 
"You misled me when you told us all to sign on to AOL and chat," a
subscriber posted in the area's bulletin board.  "I thought it would be
something interactive, but it's not."  (They signed themself

There's other problems, too.  Advertising Age reports that O'Donnell's
show is seen live only in "a number of East Coast markets".  An AOL
subscriber warned O'Donnell that last Monday they'd found seven chat rooms
at 6 p.m. full of people who "didn't understand that you were on when you
filmed the show, not when everyone was watching the show."  One unanswered
question came from an eight-year-old girl.  "She is quite upset," her
mother posted, "and driving me insane right now..." 

Subscribers resent their lack of true access.  Since 1994, AOL's staffers
have circulated the celebrity's e-mail address, and one in-house bulletin
board post described being invited to visit O'Donnell backstage after a
play.  ("The first thing Rosie said to us when we entered her room was
'how do you print out e-mail?' ")  18 months later, their message was
re-posted anonymously to Usenet, along with angry commentary directed at
the AOL staffers.  "Imagine if you were the famous fat slob, and you
wanted your anonymity?" But in fact, Rosie confirmed that she loved the
attention when contacted by the editor of AOL Watch (adding "The 'famous
fat slob' line was a bit rude, don't you think Dave?")

Still, the only ones who have real access to Rosie O'Donnell are AOL's
customer service staffers.  They logged onto her account and took joyrides
in 1995, staffers report.  Also accessed were the accounts of Dallas
Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman, Robin Quivers from the Howard Stern show,
and the lead singer for Megadeth...  The unauthorized accesses apparently
resulted from lax hiring policies.  One web page alleges "cattle call" 
recruiting messages were used to staff the Texas facility where the
unauthorized accesses took place.  "One puzzled jobseeker, dressed in
slacks and an open shirt without a tie, could not figure out how to take
the typing test. He moved from computer booth to computer booth, thinking
they were all broken.

"When I informed him he simply had to use the mouse to move the pointer on
the screen and click on the BEGIN TEST icon, he asked me what a mouse

Other celebrities find an AOL presence can be problematic.  Though Ellen
Degeneres received nationwide coverage when her TV character came "out of
the closet," AOL's keyword "Ellen" displays a six-paragraph description of
the show's characters without ever mentioning Ellen's sexual orientation. 
"Last season, Ellen Morgan's world was rocked," it announces instead,
"when an earthquake destroyed Buy The Book, her struggling literary cafe." 

An icon for the show's bulletin board leads to a disturbing message. 
AOL's Terms of Service "has made it next to impossible to maintain the
boards within posted AOL guidelines" -- and the board has been removed.
"Hopefully we will be able to reopen the boards in the very near future," 
they wrote -- a week ago -- though the boards have been gone for nearly
two.  "Until then," it counsels readers, "we urge all of you to re-read
the posted TOS guidelines."  There's a history of similar crackdowns.  In
1995 AOL removed a bulletin board about Courtney Love because of
"inappropriate" posts.  Angry fans pointed out that the crackdown
coincided with the first anniversary of the death of her husband, Kurt

Ironically, the same week an AOL Vice President issued a message stating
"We are not in the business of censorship," arguing that (despite all
evidence to the contrary) AOL executives "believe strongly in individual
freedom of speech." (  She was
responding to an incident in which AOL's webmaster threatened the teenaged
author of a web page (  because he found
it "offensive and disturbing." (

Two years later, the hypocrisy continues.  "Are AOL chat areas and message
boards censored?"  reads one question in the information sheet AOL
provided for prospective users in Australia.  Their answer:  "No."  But
"The AOL terms of service prohibit profanity, pornography and harassment
of other members, as well as any illegal activities." 
( )

"Sure sounds like censorship to me," one AOL Watch reader observed. 

Even a bulletin board about Barry Manilow was removed by AOL.  "Can we get
the board back," one bewildered subscriber wondered, "or will this be like
Russia for good?" 

Ironically, keyword "Barry Manilow" now leads to AOL's Rosie O'Donnell

Though AOL claims the right to regulate their content, the results are
remarkably ineffective.  The webmaster of a New York City school removed
AOL's software from the school's computers, telling the New York Times,
"It's a field day for predators. I will put it back on when they clean up
their act..."  ( 
The Washington Post seems to share his sentiments.  "Virtually none of the
online chat rooms that get written about in the news media actually exist
in popular, easy-to-use form on the Internet," Post reporter John Schwartz
writes.  "[I]nstead, they can be found via commercial online services such
as America Online...  By making the entire Internet sound like one big
porno palace and pedophile playground, I think we scare people who might
otherwise find something valuable in the huge parts of the Net that are
perfectly safe."

Safety issues ultimately affect AOL itself.  Sunday one subscriber used a
hole in AOL's security to mock their Terms of Service.  The "Hardware
Reference Guide"  in AOL's PC Hardware forum was re-named "TOS Advisor
(fatass) naked."

The content area was apparently claimed by a user named "K1Ng," who
ignored AOL's Terms of Service and added graffiti-like comments or
scatological remarks to thirteen parts of the screen. 

Ironically, the text appeared above a banner ad for AMD's chips. 

"True geniuses always have a better plan." 


"AOL is now able to continue dictating the manner in which people may
conduct themselves online through seemingly arbitrary, overly restrictive,
censorial 'rules'," one user complained in an on-line bulletin board. 
( )

But AOL doesn't ALWAYS get to determine who speaks.  Advertising Age
reports Rosie O'Donnell's site has already sold banner ads to AOL's
chief competitor -- Microsoft. 
  David Cassel
  More Information,1012,479,00.html


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