AOL Watch ("The AOL List"): Hypocrisy

David Cassel (
Tue, 2 Dec 1997 15:57:32 -0800 (PST)

			  H y p o c r i s y


Monday AOL announced "an intensive online campaign" to introduce new
safety features. Step one appeared to be the *elimination* of Guide

One Community Leader who asked a Guide received the following response. 
"Can we say 'Oops'? When they re-did the 'Notify AOL', they forgot the
'Summon the Guide' button!"  The Guide told them AOL was working to repair
the omission, writing that "It's being put back as soon as they can!"  On
an in-house bulletin board, another Community Leader proposed an alternate
method for summoning a Guide.

	"Close your eyes
	 Click your heels 3 times and chant
	 Guides are great" 

The same day the New York Times reported on an "unstoppable flow of
pornography" hitting AOL subscriber mailboxes.

The New York Times reporter writes that his 11-year-old daughter was
receiving e-mail titled "live teen-age hookers" and "busty babes want
you."  Replies -- that "I am an 11-year- old girl" -- only generated more
e-mail.  "Monday, as government officials and Internet executives gather
at the White House to talk about what to do about spam, my daughter's only
available filter -- her father -- will log on to America Online and try to
delete the e-mail from sleaze merchants intruding into Molly's childhood." 

The procedures AOL announced Monday won't have any impact on the problem. 
AOL's mail controls are failing, according to one columnist for the San
Francisco Chronicle.  "Junk mail is becoming a serious problem for AOL," 
David Einstein observed, "which, sad to say, doesn't seem capable of doing
much to thwart it."

AOL's announcement appeared geared to their desire for publicity.  "AOL
made the announcements on the first day of the historic Internet Online
Summit:  Focus on Children in Washington, D.C.," their press release
stresses.  The new features publicized Monday won't actually be available
for at least a month.

Even then, the "Expanded Technological Tools" are cosmetic changes: 
moving the Parental Controls button (now containing one additional
category) and displaying warning text when new screen names are created. 
The remaining "new technological tool" was the "Notify AOL" button --
which has existed for many months.  (Further down the press release
concedes the button will only be re-distributed to mailboxes and instant

"New 'AOL Neighborhood Watch'" read the press release's headline--but
it's nothing new. "We're fostering a 'neighborhood watch' program to try
to keep AOL safe for kids of all ages," Steve Case told members -- over
two years ago.  The October 1995 Community Update came on the heels of a
two-year FBI investigation into child-pornography trading on AOL 
( ) -- and the "Neighborhood Watch"
metaphor appeared to shift responsibility to AOL's users.  "We simply
cannot keep up with the sheer volume of rooms created,"  Case complained
three months later, "and as a result, from time to time rooms that violate
TOS remain open for some period of time...  If you observe what you
believe may be illegal activity on AOL, bring it to our attention."  The
new "AOL Neighborhood Watch" appears to be simply a new name for
pre-existing features.  

And the neighborhood watch area also includes a prominent mention of AOL's
shopping and banking areas...

AOL was quick to publicize this new package (of pre-existing tools). 
"You can control what your children see online" AOL's welcome screen
announced Monday night.  But even at three in the morning, AOL was unable
to display their safety information.  ("A request to the host has taken
longer than expected..." a pop-up message warned instead...)
( )  Another user also reports that
complaints sent to TOS Kids were deleted unread -- and one Guide told AOL
Watch "Members on WAOL 2.5 can't get to the 'Notify AOL' screen at all.
They get the artwork -- but then *nothing*."

It could be worse.  "Today when I signed on to check my mail, after a ten
minute wait, I received the standard 'Request to host took too long'
message," one subscriber complained, "and was told to contact keyword
'system response' to report it."  But that was impossible.  "Trying to
report the problem to 'System Response' resulted in the same message."

"Not only could one not check mail, one could not report being unable to
do so!" 

"One Risk, often repeated," an information system director posted to "The
Risks Digest" -- "The bigger and more complex systems get, the more prone
to problems."  ( )  He
was speaking of AOL's recent e-mail outages -- but technology
correspondent Simson Garfinkel shared news on a week of additional
problems.  "Many customers who use local ISPs to telephone AOL (using
AOL's TCP/IP connection option) have been unable to get through."  
( ) 

Complicating the problem:  "AOL's standard response, when people call the
company's technical support hotlines, is to say that the fault lies with
the customer's local ISP, and not with AOL itself."  In fact, the
technology correspondent had verified connection problems "between AOL and
the rest of the Internet" in distinct locations on the East and West
coast.  Yet AOL denied that problem even existed when he phoned to
complain, blaming the internet services being used.  "This seems
unlikely," he remarked wryly. 

"It shows the ease of finger-pointing on the Internet today," Garfinkel
concluded, "and the difficulty of accountability." 

Indeed.  Last week AOL also stopped delivering e-mail from several ISPs. 
"Without notice, AOL blocked all FlexNet subscribers from the ability to
send e-mail to any AOL subscriber,"  the Houston ISP announced in a press
release.  ( )  It appeared to be
another bungled attempt to block spam which may in fact have been
originating from AOL. "Ironically, the only reason that can be uncovered
by FlexNet's management is that the person that caused the problem used
what appeared to be an AOL account to relay a large amount of unsolicited
e-mail to AOL subscribers.  The mail was relayed or 'bounced' off of
FlexNet's server to a list of AOL subscribers..."  It's nothing new.  "A
large percentage of unsolicited e-mail has originated from America Online
accounts because of the ease in establishing an account free of charge." 
Given that, the ISP resented AOL's refusal to deliver any mail from their
subscribers.  "It is ironic that AOL would single us out given the fact
that a considerable amount of our administrative and technical expense
goes towards our dealing with AOL spam. We do not block their domain,
because it would be unfair to our subscribers. It seems that their size
and influence preclude them from extending the same courtesy." 

They contacted AOL, but "all correspondence has gone ignored."  The
company's president announced that "We are starting to wonder if there are
motives other than spam that are behind these heavy handed tactics. I
guess one easy way to squeeze out small or regional ISP's would be to
block people's access to their services." 

"If there are others that have suffered in the same manner," the company's
president concluded, "we will share this information with our attorneys." 
Soon, AOL had reversed their position ( ) 
-- but then reports surfaced that they'd also stopped delivering mail from
the Microsoft Network.  (,4,16907,00.html )  
Again, AOL executives refused to respond to complaints, an MSN official
told C|Net.  For a week, AOL prevented 325,000 MSN members from contacting
AOL members.  "There's nothing the Microsoft Network can do," the MSN
official told C|Net.  "I wish there was. The ball's in [AOL's] court." 
(Ironically, as AOL's week of mail problems continued, subscribers signing
on Monday were offered Hard Drive Mechanic 3.0.  "Recover data from
catastrophic crashes!" it promised.  "Get peace of mind before OR after
your hard drive crashes....")

The day AOL announced their new spam-blocking features in 1996, Steve Case
said the blocks "give members a choice.  AOL is not making a decision for
its members, the power is in their hands." 
( )  The opposite seems to be
occurring.  In the last year, AOL has sporadically refused to deliver mail
from several other internet services, including
( ) and in Ohio, as well as
Boston's ( ) -- and 
last December, they refused to display thousands of web pages for over ten
days ( ).  Kesmai's lawsuit
against AOL even alleges that they blocked subscribers from reaching the
web sites of competing game services like Sierra Online and Simutronics.  
( )  Wired News reports that AOL moved to
dismiss Kesmai's lawsuit, which alleges anti-competitive behavior -- but
the judge didn't agree. 

Other parts of AOL's service also show neglect.  Keyword "keywords" offers
"the ultimate keyword list" -- but it hasn't been updated in nearly a
year. Three days after Christmas of 1996 the phrase "updated!" was
attached to the list -- where it's lingered untouched ever since.  It may
signal AOL's indifference.  "As of Friday, November 21, keyword:  KEYWORD
will take you to a different keyword area," an announcement warns. 
"America Online has automated the process of compiling keyword
lists....and has decided this particular area is no longer needed."  Three
of the area's staffers signed the announcement, noting that "We are not
involved in the new area..."  After their departure, "A new area with a
new list should replace this area on Friday," they explained.  But eleven
days later:  nothing. 

Even AOL's most popular features suffer from glitches.  On Halloween,
C|Net reported that AOL had rescinded an upgrade to their chat rooms. 
(,4,15925,00.html )  "They tried to put it
up again late last night," one Guide told AOL Watch November 22 -- "and
the whole system basically fell apart..."

"Due to additional 'technical difficulties'," a humbled chat team
announced, "the People Connection/chat relaunch has been postponed
indefinitely..."  The upgraded chat facilities will now be postponed until
some time in 1998.  "The long delay is related to a combination of bugs
and lack of resources over the coming holidays."  Ironically, an on-line
meeting about the status of the chat rooms also had to be postponed
because "There appeared to be problems with the auditorium and the
majority of Community Leaders could not access the event." 

The chat team is hungry for cash.  "In our quest for alternative revenues
for People Connection," they wrote "we will gladly take suggestions!"
adding that "in order to maintain NON-SURCHARGED chat, it is important
that we find alternative revenues..."  In fact, one Interactive Week
columnist wonders how AOL's bookkeepers are able to report profits for the
cash-strapped company.  "Next thing you know, David Copperfield will be
hosting the company's quarterly conference calls with Wall Street
analysts."  ( ) 
A recent Washington Post article uncovered the working environment at AOL. 
"Six hundred AOL employees work in Creative Center One, with toys
scattered in most cubicles, caffeinated beverage cans pyramided on desks
and the occasional silly putty sculpture."  The president of creative
development told the paper that they'd even built conference tables out of
floppy disks with AOL's software.

Disorganization pervades the service.  Yesterday the deadline passed to
claim refunds for bad service between December of 1996 and March of 1997. 
True to form, AOL reminded users that they have until November 15 to file
their objections -- on November 29.  One on-line journal reports that
overseas divisions practice a form of benign neglect.  "The day after AOL
passed the 10 million customer mark, the service went down again," they
wrote in late November.  "United Kingdom managing director Jonathon
Bulkeley told us not to worry. He couldn't get online, went to a meeting
and when he came out it was fixed.  A sensible approach to technical
problems we feel..."  ( ) 

Subscribers have a new response to AOL's problems:  despair.  When he uses
AOL, Jesse Berst, columnist for Ziff-Davis News, has a question.  "Am I
trapped in Hell forever? Or am I merely in purgatory, due to pass on to a
better place?"  ( ) 
Berst attributes AOL's size to critical mass, customer inertia, and little
competition. He asks if AOL will finally "put its customers first and
deliver them unto the promised land of a cheap, reliable Internet-based
service? Not a snowball's chance, according to most observers."  Citing
AOL's "promise first, deliver... whenever" strategy, he writes that "AOL
customers should expect to suffer for a lot longer...If you belong to AOL,
heaven can wait. It will have to."

Interactive Week added that despite Steve Case's promises about improved
capacity, for the month of October "Initial calls into AOL...  failed at a
rate of 35.2 percent during prime-time hours (6 p.m. to midnight) compared
with an industry average of 11.3 percent failure." Citing figures from
Inverse Network Technology, Inc, they added that "Results for calls placed
any time of day during October indicate a failure rate of 15.9 percent for
AOL vs. an industry average of 6.9 percent." 
( )  Regardless of the
time of day, subscribers were more than three times less likely to reach
AOL than the average ISP.

After a series of technical problems, The Wall Street Journal noted that
"the three latest glitches shut down traffic for a total of 15 hours" -- a
figure which constituted 2% of that 30-day period -- and in March one
subscriber told a St. Paul newspaper that AOL was "no better than tin cans
and a string."
( ).
Others' thoughts turn to retaliation over AOL's "Idle" timers..  "Let's 
hook Steve Case up to life support," one angry subscriber told AOL Watch,
"so that every 47 minutes he has to click OK just to stay alive." 
On-line shoppers may regret using AOL, too.  One customer complained to
HomePC that after purchasing a computer from AOL in May, their order was
ignored for several months, though "The site promises delivery in five to
10 days." ( )

Though AOL officials remain busy issuing press releases, glitches continue
to appear on-line -- and behind-the-scenes.  The day before Thanksgiving,
the manager of AOL's Community Leaders lost control of his account.  An
attacker quickly scurried through the Community Leader bulletin boards,
posting a Thanksgiving wish from the manager's account, again and again...

 "My family and I wish all the Community Leaders and ACI Employees a
  wonderful Thanksgiving," the prankster wrote. 

One Guide told AOL Watch that "For those who read his posts often, it was
obvious that it wasn't his style."  

The friendly messages were quickly deleted.


Ironically, the day AOL first announced their spam-blocking mail controls,
they also had to issue a correction on an earlier press release.  "The
third line should read, 'Motley Fool'," it read, "rather than 'Motley
Food'."  ( 

        David Cassel
        More Information -,4,16851,00.html


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