AOL Watch ("The AOL List"): Danger and Neglect

David Cassel (
Sun, 9 Nov 1997 15:41:29 -0800 (PST)

   D a n g e r   a n d   N e g l e c t


"Privacy, the safety of your family, and murder."

Barbara Walters spoke in hushed tones Halloween night.  She was
introducing "one of the most important viewing hours you may spend" -- a
20/20 segment warning about "vile ideas" and "depraved people".  It was
titled "Dangers of the Internet" -- but most of the show concerned AOL
chat rooms.

"And America Online, they have rooms -- hundreds of rooms -- each catering
to somebody's whim," one interview subject explained.  A female teenager
remembered that when she met one man on-line, "he started, like, spitting
out, like, really sexual comments, and he was like, 'I want to meet you.'
And I'm like, 'I don't think so.' And I signed off, and I, like, left the

"And I didn't go back on America Online for a while...."

"You think someone should tell them that AOL isn't the internet?" one AOL
Watch reader asked.  As NetGuide magazine noted in 1995, "Behind every
major 'Internet' story in the media lies an AOL chat room."  Just days
before ABC's broadcast, AOL Watch cited a Washington Post columnist who'd
written that "Virtually none of the on-line chat rooms that get written
about in the news media actually exist in popular, easy-to-use form on the
Internet; instead, they can be found via commercial on-line services such
as America Online." The reporter had seen the importance of the
distinction.  "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."

20/20 focused on a single bizarre incident involving a New Jersey
fifteen-year-old who "snapped" after an affair with an older man he'd met
in an AOL chat room
( )

-- but they ignored important distinctions.  AOL's service offers users
non-stop anonymity, with an unlimited supply of disposable screen names.
In 1995, the San Francisco Chronicle's Robert Rossney noted that AOL has
"built a system that makes it easy for predators to operate, and has then
turned around and aggressively marketed it to prey." 
Continuing that strategy, AOL launched a PR offensive.  As the 20/20
program aired, AOL's welcome screen pointed users to a chance to hear from
"CEO Steve Case on creating the safest online environment for our

AOL's intention was clear.  "I'm sure most of you have noticed the amount
of news focusing on children on the Internet," Case wrote.  "I'd like to
take a moment to speak to you as a parent," the unmarried CEO added.  The
announcement appeared on-line for the next four days -- but it was
ultimately accompanied by pointers to "Wild Teen Chat". 
( )  Two days later, the sign-on
screen announced "BEDTIME picnic for two?  Select sensuous sweets in
Gourmet Gifts."  In fact, AOL even promotes their "Plug In" teen chat room
with the phrase "Age/Sex Check!"
( aol://4344:3087.p1000ASa.20382659.538289634 )

And one user -- whose profile identified themself as 13 -- posted a
request for "sex pics" in aol.newsgroups.bugs.  Nearly two weeks later,
their request remains on-line.

It signals AOL's true indifference.  All AOL users are subscribed to
aol.newsgroups.bugs -- by default.  Its "local", AOL-only posts appear
even when AOL's parental controls are set to create a level of access
appropriate for teenagers.  And AOL has apparently stopped monitoring the
newsgroup.  A thread titled "American Niggers" contains 33 posts.

Over a dozen more appeared in a thread titled "Teen sex."  In fact, eleven
different threads contained the word "sex".  "This is my first time in
newsgroups," one subscriber complained. "Frankly, I am appalled."  Another
poster agreed.  "This is the first time I have used a newsgroup," they
posted, "but it appears that the subject matter from some of you is
blatantly SICK..."  AOL's failure to patrol the newsgroup -- or respond to
complaints -- create a free-for-all where TOS-violating posts far outweigh
posts about newsgroup bugs.  ( )
Advertisers seeking free exposure join teenagers in exploiting the

  Extra space before each line
  Teen Sex

The newsgroup is officially described as "A forum for discussion of
problems in the software of the aol newsreader."  But users have long
since abandoned that guideline.  "LATEX GLOVE IRRITATION RELIEF!" another
post promised.  "Ask me how...everything you need to know about Oxyfresh,
its amazing cutting-edge products and complete duplicable program."

"please send all sex pics," read another topic.  "get a good sex," another
offered.  "i need cartoon porn," said a third.  ("so do i" read a
follow-up.  "as do i"  read the next...)  Users complaining have little
luck.  One e-mailed TOSEmail1, TOSGeneral, Newsmaster, Postmaster, and
TOSUsenet.  ( )  Ten days later --

"We have cancelled the member's posts," AOL's postmaster wrote back after
five days.

"Then why is it still there..." the member wanted to know.  Though AOL had
said they'd cancelled the post -- they hadn't.  Six days later, the post
is still on-line.

Others noted similar unresponsiveness:

 - "I forwarded a lot of the articles to TOS Usenet," an AOL Watch reader
    reported Saturday.  "That was on Tuesday; to this day they haven't
    even read my e-mail."

 -  After reading an egregious post, an AOL-Europe support staffer told
    AOL Watch that "His statement is against TOS, and that's why I
    reported him...  He'll soon know how to behave."

    Eight days later, the post remained on-line.

It's been worse.  The Cincinnati Enquirer reported that AOL staffers
failed to fully screen incoming files in 1995, and as a result, child
pornography appeared in AOL's file libraries.  "FBI and America Online
records revealed that during one 25-minute span when an illegal photograph
was made available...about 400 people nationwide downloaded the picture to
their computers."  ( )  That
atmosphere continues. For the last two weeks, aol.newsgroups.bugs has
displayed a post requesting pictures of teenagers having sex.

Morbid humor appears in the poster's on-line profile.  "Whatever they tell
you," it reads, "the state appointed psychiatrist is not your 'friend'."

Another user suggests a new slogan for AOL:  "It's so easy to use no
wonder sexual predators rank it number 1."  In an unfortunate coincidence,
earlier this year, AOL's own attorney was charged with sexually assaulting
an 11-year-old boy.  ( )  After
receiving no responses to their complaints about inappropriate posts, one
user reached a troubling conclusion.

"I am sufficiently satisfied that they simply do not care," they told AOL

ABC translates AOL-only problems into "Danger on the Internet" -- perhaps
because the program aired during the second night of the crucial "Sweeps"
period when ratings are calculated. 
( )  They also
reported that "across this country, more than half the kids from 12 to 17
are using the Internet," though in fact, the latest statistics from
Jupiter Communications state that only 15% of America's teenagers are
on-line.  ( )
One Guide see a disturbing pattern.  "I still find it interesting that
20/20 does a story in prime time, and suddenly all of these resources are
going to kids" -- including most of the available on-line guides.  They
see an attempt to avoid negative news stories involving children.
Currently, when kids chat rooms can't be sufficiently staffed, AOL simply
closes them.  The Guide notes this often has the opposite effect:
children enter AOL's all-ages chat rooms.  (In June Steve Case conceded
that nearly 75% of AOL households with young children didn't use the
Parental Controls that would block chat room access.)

Meanwhile, unauthorized soft-porn appears to be thriving on the system
( aol://4344:613.pullmel.3475360.491812517 ) -- as well as AOL-endorsed
content like the Hub's feature on nipple erections
( aol://4344:773.HOTNIP1.6843825.521317437 )  and pixellated photos of
nude celebrities. ( )  ("Just what
belongs on a 'family service'," one AOL Watch reader complained.)  AOL's
"AOL Insider" once noted that AOL's most popular downloads -- accessible
even with parental controls set for teenagers -- are pin-ups of a blonde
wrestler.  ( )

These features belie AOL's commitment to children's safety.  "If AOL just
put a percentage of the effort it makes to spin-doctor away its
culpability for these problems into solving them, inexpensive and
effective solutions could be found," one children's rights activist told
Congress. ( )  Instead,
recently, they've even begun REDUCING resources for patrolling the system,
according to some remote staffers. (

That's not the only security problem.  A beta-version of AOL's proprietary
4.0 software -- not available to AOL users -- has apparently leaked out to
the web.  ( )  Others point to an
incident where in-house message boards for beta-testers couldn't be
adequately patrolled for TOS-violating content -- and the boards were
closed.  The same fate awaited keyword "Ellen," which was
removed from the system entirely ten days ago, apparently due to an
inability to effectively patrol its message board. 
( ) 

Now AOL's trying to expand the reach of their anonymous screen names to
the rest of the internet.
( )  Wired News
described it as "one technology the proprietary network operator -- which
has taken so much flack for technical troubles -- has apparently gotten
right..."  Ironically, that day AOL experienced still more e-mail outages
( ) -- and some
users reported AOL simply refused to deliver e-mail recently, sending a
bounce message stating the the user "is temporarily unavailable while we
upgrade our system."

Glitches also hit AOL's chat rooms, which were upgraded to a new format on
October 29.  Within days, technical problems forced AOL to revert to the
old-style chat rooms -- and ten days later, they have yet to restore the
new features.

Yet AOL continues their reckless expansion.  "Last weekend, I wore a hat
that was given out at the 1993 Holiday Party that says '500,000 Members',"
AOL's Michael Connors e-mailed Steve Case on October 29.  "Times sure do
change."  500,093 subscribers had logged onto AOL that night at the same
time. "This week, for the first time, we were able to accommodate more
than 500,000 simultaneous users!"  Steve Case boasted in his November
Community Update.  Unreported is the fact that the next day a nationwide
crash prevented full log-in capability for four and half hours.
( )

"We will keep working to increase our capacity," Case wrote instead, "to
make sure you can rely and depend on us, each and every day."  (The
statistics suggest that instead, AOL kept half a million users
off-line...)  Nevertheless, they continue their relentless quest for
subscribers.  Between June and August, AOL spent $97.8 million marketing
their service--over $1 million dollars per day. 
( )

Loyal members are getting discouraged.  One Guide says "I no longer read
Steve's letter, 'The Pulse of AOL' or the Insider, which seem to have no
basis in reality."  In a variation on Urban Flight, even some members of
the news media are abandoning AOL's service.  One highly-placed free-lance
writer told AOL Watch they were "leaving behind the busy signals and 'good
intentions' of AOL."

"Though for a long time, having AOL meant I could report on their idiocy
first-hand, now I will rely on the third-hand reports of friends and the
less fortunate."


"Sex should not be censored," one poster wrote in the "sex is cool" thread
in aol.newsgroups.bugs, "and every body should share it with everybody.

"Especily me."

        David Cassel
        More Information -


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