AOL Watch ("The AOL List"): Wrongs and Rights

David Cassel (
Thu, 20 Nov 1997 12:30:33 -0800 (PST)

		       W r o n g s   a n d   R i g h t s


In May, Andrew Lewis Singer was an AOL attorney. 

Last Thursday he pleaded guilty to aggravated sexual battery of an

Authorities entered AOL's Dulles, Virginia headquarters May 30 and
arrested Singer.  He had apparently returned to work after a May 27
incident in which he met a teenaged on-line acquaintance at Ashburn Farm
-- then asked about the 11-year-old fishing across the lake. He then
committed a felony offense which included putting his hands down the boy's
pants. ( ) 

Two additional counts of "taking indecent liberties" based on e-mail sent
to another teenager were dropped, the Loudoun County Sheriffs Department
told AOL Watch.  Singer faced up to 20 years in prison, but struck a plea
agreement which limited his sentence to the mid-point of Virginia
sentencing guidelines.  (He will serve no more than three years and four

The day after Singer pleaded guilty, AOL informed on-line staffers in
their children's areas they'd be required to submit to a criminal
background check.  "People are NOT reacting well to this little surprise,"
one Guide confided.  "I imagine they don't want too much time to be
available for people to consult their attorneys."  The ominous letters
arrived via Federal Express.  "If you do not wish to submit to a
background check," it states, "we regret that we will not be able to
continue to use your services in our 'Kids Only' area." 

"If we have not heard from you within 7 days of the date on this letter," 
it continues, "we will assume that you are not agreeing to a background
check and will adjust your hosting dates accordingly."  AOL also contacted
their content partners, informing them that the criminal background checks
are only for Community Leaders in kids-only areas owned by AOL -- "right
now."  But "once the process has been established for these AOL-owned
areas, background checks will be required for Community Leaders for all
sites in the Kids Only channel." 

Children's safety is a sensitive subject for AOL.  In 1995 the FBI
revealed a two-year undercover probe of child pornography trading on
America Online when they raided the homes of over 120 AOL users, netting
"at least a dozen suspected pedophiles," the Associated Press reported. 
( )  But problems continue.
Many AOL Watch readers noted a recent FOX News story about "the vicious
internet"  actually focussed on events on AOL, and two weeks ago, 20/20
aired a story about a 15-year-old boy "seduced by a child molester he met
on the Internet" -- though in fact, they met in AOL's chat rooms.  
( ) 
"I will continue to update you on the progress we make to create a safer
online environment for all of all our children," Case told subscribers
that night.  Twelve days later, a Virginia man was charged with raping a
14-year-old girl he'd met through an AOL chat room.

One exacerbating factor:  only AOL offers their users an unlimited supply
of fully-anonymous screen names.  AOL is apparently ignoring the
observation of the San Francisco Chronicle's Robert Rossney -- that AOL
"built a system that makes it easy for predators to operate, and has then
turned around and aggressively marketed it to prey".
In 1996 Internet Underground magazine ranked Steve Case as the third most
subversive person on-line, saying he was "responsible for luring millions
of people into naughty chat rooms" -- but apparently, AOL is even trying
to generate traffic for their $2.00-per-hour games -- frequented by many
young adults -- by promoting them as a "Singles" club. ("MEET YOUR DREAM 
partner in WorldPlay," AOL's welcome screen announced recently -- "Real
people.  Real fun.")  AOL is also marketing themselves toward teenagers
through a new alliance with People magazine.  ("Log on for hot buzz,"  the
web site states, "on today's grooviest stars and styles; real love advice; 
scarily true horoscopes, and more." )  "Millions
of teens already regard AOL as their home online,"  the CEO of AOL
Networks announced in a press release.  
( )  But how
concerned is AOL about their safety?  Even with AOL's Parental Controls
set for teen access, images titled "Butt is it art," "Sexy Models, silly
shoes," and Bananarama" are distributed through the "Intimate Images"
section of AOL's "Heckler's Online" area.

The soft-porn pictures are also displayed on the Heckler's Online web
site.  "Can you say 'Hypocrite?'" one AOL Watch reader asked.  "It may not
be hardcore, but I don't think too many parents want their kids seeing
these images."  (Coincidentally, when accessing the images through the
Heckler's Online site, browsers receive an ad for "Excite.") 

AOL's current Terms of Service even include a caveat specifically allowing
AOL to refuse to monitor any of their boards and chat rooms.  ("AOL, Inc.
may elect, at its sole discretion, to monitor some, all, or none of AOL's
public areas for adherence to the TOS.")  One user reports that recently
complaints sent to AOL's Terms of Service address were deleted, unread. 
Another subscriber notified AOL that their home phone number had been
posted as the source for "Naughty Oklahoma T-Shirts," yet the angry phone
calls -- and death threats - - continued.  
( )  His lawyer
told the New York Times that "apart from its own internal instincts," AOL
had no legal incentive to act.  Yesterday's Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
tells a similar story.  AOL received a court order requiring them to
divulge the identity of the man who posted a female subscriber's phone
number, giving her hobby as "one night stands."  "[S]he received 'dozens
of unwanted and disturbing phone calls at work from unknown men from
across the United States'," the paper reports. 

Meanwhile, several mail-order bride firms are using AOL as their business
address. "The U.S. government...requires the Thai American Introduction
Service to inform you that it is RISKY to marry a stranger that you have
only known for a short time" reads one service's disclaimer -- though
their main page announces that the service "is generally for 'marriage
minded people'," (though not limited to "the marriage minded...")  
( )  Another introduction catalog
includes an important caveat.  "You must be at least 16 to be published,"
it announces in flashing red letters.  
( ) 

But an atmosphere of unaccountability pervades AOL's system.  "It occurs
to me that I am a stalker," another AOL user states.  "The woman I am
stalking is a friend -- a close friend -- and from time to time I let her
know I am stalking her."  The user is the Washington Post's Richard Cohen,
examining the disturbing implications of AOL's Buddy List feature.  Being
someone's buddy is "creepy," his female friend concluded.  "That person
always knows when you are online."

AOL now hopes to export that uneasiness to the internet.  "Inherent in
this buddy technology is the notion that any user who is not specifically
blocked from access to another person's log-on status will also be able to
peruse the list and message at will,"  Wired News noted-- using the word
"invasiveness" ( ) 
The technology will be bundled with new versions of Netscape's browsers --
and AOL's rationale was clear.  One analyst told the news service that
"you cannot understate the potential for ad revenue on these little
instant messaging windows when you're sending around hundreds of millions
of messages per day." 

But AOL's pursuit of ad revenues at the expense of privacy concerns Susan
Scott, Executive Director of TRUSTe, an on-line privacy organization. 
( ) Scott
told Advertising Age that when she gave AOL her credit card number, it was
so they could bill her.  "It wasn't so they could buy my information from
database companies."  Her conclusion?  "It's a gross violation of
privacy." The magazine also cites a Business Week poll in which only 1% of
adult respondents were "very willing"  to share personal and financial
information so on-line ads could be targeted more specifically.
( )  A whopping 88% said
they were "not very willing"  or "not willing at all" -- but AOL has
implemented the policy anyways.  Ironically, many of AOL's advertisers are
just as unhappy about AOL's unwillingness simply to reveal the number of
people viewing their ads.  "Even clients for whom the information is
promised have to beg and scream for it," one analyst told MSNBC, "and then
they get it three months after the fact." 
( )

AOL's greed may backfire on them.  Frequent advertisements for their Visa
card promise there's no annual fee for the card -- and a Worth magazine
columnist noticed AOL doesn't charge interest on cash advances until the
end of the billing cycle.  A friend of the columnist obtained a cash
advance for his full line of credit -- and then placed it in an
interest-bearing checking account.  The card's automatic-pay feature
allowed him to return the full amount to AOL after weeks of collecting
interest.  The accumulated interest after one year:  $1000. 
( )  

"Revenge is at hand," the columnist wrote -- "Not that AOL is likely to
leave this loophole open long after reading Worth."


AOL's Netscape's Instant Messenger feature didn't impress Jeff Schult, the
special projects director for CyberZone Internet.  "The 'Find a Buddy' by
e-mail feature doesn't seem to work," he told AOL Watch.  "It says I can't
use the feature because I'm not registered, and directs me to
register...then tells me that I'm already registered." 

After registering, he was sent five URLs for additional information.  Only
two of them worked--and one went to a page for "Feedback".  "I figured
Netscape wouldn't partner with you if the service sucked," his feedback
read, "but I guess I was wrong." 

        David Cassel
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