AOL Watch ("The AOL List"): The Lady Vanishes

David Cassel (
Fri, 23 Jan 1998 15:08:43 -0800 (PST)

		     T h e   L a d y   V a n i s h e s


A web page claiming to belong to former White House intern Monica Lewinsky
was removed from AOL yesterday.  But the Detroit News reports the AOL
member profile corresponding to the page contained a suspicious quote -- 
" 'Oh What a Tangled Web We Weave'. " 
( ) 

The page was presumably a hoax.  In 1995, an AOL user created the screen
name "TimMcVeigh" after Timothy McVeigh was arrested on suspicion of
bombing a federal building in Oklahoma City.  (According to one Usenet
poster, the user's profile gave as their hobby "organic bombs".)  At the
time, other posters complained that a Dateline NBC story had referred to
the profile in their coverage -- and one cited a Reuters news story noting
that the profile appeared two days after McVeigh was in federal custody.
The story also reported another McVeigh profile had surfaced in AOL's
member directory -- giving as McVeigh's location "Gullible, U.S.A."  His
personal quote?  "Don't believe everything you hear on NBC." 

Subscribers were incredulous when the first profile turned up.  ("Wonder
if Steve Case will mention THAT in his next monthly newsletter to
subscribers!" one wondered.)  They soon learned that they shouldn't
believe everything they heard on AOL, either.  That weekend, other Usenet
posters discovered "three other McVeigh clones had profiles earlier

AOL's Terms of Service contain a caveat that "You may not use, or allow
others to use, your AOL account, either directly or indirectly,
to...impersonate any person or entity..." But that apparently was no
deterrent to the Monica Lewinsky imitator.  ("The White House, This is
where I used to work," the Detroit News quotes the page as saying.)  One
poster to the alt.current-events.clinton.whitewater claims to have saved a
copy of the "Monica's Place" web page, and posted the page's HTML code to
the newsgroup. 

A copy has been placed at

But that's not the only mysterious disappearance.  Thursday a notorious
web site recruiting for the Ku Klux Klan also vanished from AOL.  It's a
new chapter in the site's notorious history.  Despite numerous complaints,
AOL refused to remove the page after one of their members created it 10
months ago.  (  Some users questioned
AOL's priorities, since earlier they'd removed an informational web page
created by HBO's sex therapist Dr. Susan Block.  ("Steve Case would rather
wear his sheets than make love between them," Block told The Netly News. 
"I'd defend AOL's right to keep the KKK, but it's hypocritical to keep
them and shut me out."),1012,826,00.html

As the Klan-recruiting page lingered, AOL continued to remove other
content aimed at mature audiences.  "Who Stole Naomi's Nipple?" asks one
web page -- citing an incident in which AOL apparently altered the image
of a nude woman on the cover of Naomi Wolf's recent book. 
( ) Ironically, the
incriminating photographs on the page seem to have become AOL's next
target.  According to the page's webmaster, AOL's Terms of Service
department phoned to complain that the page itself was, in fact,
displaying a nipple, and the webmaster had to modify its incriminating
screen-shots.  ("But trust us, there's a nipple under there..." the page
reads now.  "Or, just call AOL Terms of Service headquarters.  Bet they've
got the nipple now.") 

Other web sites have also fallen to AOL's censors.  In October, AOL bowed
to public pressure and removed an informational web page about serial
killers. ( )  The author
of the page had agreed to remove material AOL had objected to -- but on
September 11, AOL deleted the entire site.  Other sites are off-limits to
some AOL users.  "Some Web content is not appropriate for children"
keyword Parental Controls warns.  Setting the accounts to access only "Kid
Approved" sites "allows your child access only to Web sites that have been
deemed age-appropriate for kids age 6-12 by Microsystems, Inc...insuring
that any site your child can access through this control is kid-safe." 

Ironically, Steve Case's web page didn't make the cut
( ) -- and neither did AOL's
web page ( ).  One user reports that in fact, last week
AOL began blocking ALL web sites in the domain from being
accessed by accounts set for "Kid Approved" sites -- and they added that
AOL may extend the block to accounts set for access only to "Young Teen"
sites.  The subscriber forwarded a memo ostensibly addressed to Community
Leaders.  "Some people have brought up the issue that businesses who use to host their Web sites will be blocked," the memo states. 

"This is true.  But, keep in mind, we're blocking them for children 15
and under (based on the recommended ages for the Web controls)." 

Keyword "Parental Controls" now contains a "Fine Tune with Custom
Controls" icon -- but this only allows users to submit a site for review. 
"If a business has a legitimate reason to be accessible to kids then they
should use the above path and request that they be exempt from this
block," the memo states.

AOL's behavior is creating a legion of angry victims.  Dr. Block
retaliated by adding Steve Case to her site's Hall of Shame --
"intellectually and financially dangerous individuals and organizations
that use their power to deprive people of their right to free speech and
the pursuit of happiness."  ( )  Her
story resembles those of other victims.  "The shut-down occurred
completely without warning," she writes on her web site.  "Suddenly, we
got a flurry of calls from fans who couldn't get into our web site. Then
we discovered that even we could not enter our own web site. AOL would not
even allow us to read our mail, let alone update our material or let Dr.
Block answer her clients' inquiries."

Block saw an ominous progression.  "When everything is 'cleaned up' and
'pure' enough for the Popes and Ayatollahs and AOL Supervisors," the
results will be judged by history -- and the next generation.  "What will
they say about the army of censors that charged through our times,
excising parts of our bodies, acts of love, expressions of consensual
pleasures and works of art?  They will say that we destroyed a culture." 

Despite AOL's actions, the Klan-recruiting site remained untouched. 
Except in April. The page flickered off-line after pranksters successfully
tricked AOL into closing the subscriber's account -- which resulted in the
page being taken off-line. 
( )  Their ruse
involved impersonating the Klan-recruiter's screen name, creating a name
that replaced the original name's first L with a lower-case i.  The rest
of their work was done by AOL subscribers.  "They saw this look-alike name
phishing, and ended up reporting the real one," a prankster named Dr Ill
remembered, "because they don't notice that the look-alike is fake."  His
friend Joka manned the fake account, and estimated he'd bothered 3000 AOL
users before the real Klan-recruiter's account was cancelled for the
actions of his impersonator.  ( ) 

Other pranksters are more malicious.  Someone identifying themself as
"ex-AOL guy"  has created another e-mail hoax, offering bogus warnings
that AOL will eliminate unlimited access in March.  The message
implausibly claims that AOL is monitoring the number of forwards the
message receives -- a transparent attempt to increase the message's
circulation.  ("By forwarding this letter to as many people as possible,
you are signing a petition for keeping unlimited time.") 

"I AM AN EX-AOL EMPLOYEE," it ends, "SO BELIVE [sic] ME." 

Soon, a longer version appeared, now alleging -- without any evidence --
that AOL had a back-up plan to double subscriber bills to $39.95 per month
-- but "If you call they will not tell you, they are not allowed to." 

The hoax failed to fool several AOL Watch readers .  "It's fairly obvious
that it's been written by a 13-14 year old," one complained.  Yet 2335
AOLers had received copies.  (One out of every 4710 people on AOL.) 

This resembles a recent hoax warning that privacy-invading "cookies" will
snoop through the hard drives of AOL subscribers.  
( )  But a very real privacy problem
still hangs over the head of an AOL subscriber named Timothy McVeigh.  
( )  Though his profile may have
been just as phony as the 1995 crop of Timothy McVeigh's, the Navy is
preparing to discharge him after an investigation sparked by
the information in his AOL profile. 

The Navy agreed to defer McVeigh's discharge until midnight tonight -- and
a District Court judge is expected to rule today on whether they can
proceed.  ( ) 
McVeigh has not ruled out a lawsuit against AOL, one of his attorneys told
Ziff-Davis News. 

AOL had said they were "confident" their privacy procedures were followed
in the case, but, as they now admit, they were wrong.
( )  "AOL's
behavior has been unswervingly self-serving," writes one C|Net columnist.
"With a man's career in the balance, the online service provider squawked
it had done nothing wrong, this without first conducting an
investigation."  AOL's later responses seemed even less responsible. 
"Next, it flatly refused to investigate the matter. Then, it swung about
to say it would probe the matter after all, but refused to answer
questions about when and how it intended to do so."  The columnist
reached a troubling conclusion.  "If the Navy succeeds
in drumming out McVeigh based on an electronic fishing expedition, it
should rename its policy 'Don't ask, don't AOL'."

The firestorm has AOL officials concerned.  "America Online has been
carefully following the administrative discharge proceedings brought by
the United States Navy against Senior Petty Officer Timothy McVeigh,"
reads a letter sent by AOL attorney George Vrandenburg, III to the Navy's
General Counsel and Admiral Kendell Please last week.  "America Online is
deeply concerned that the United States Navy, according to the sworn
testimony of its personnel in Senior Petty Officer McVeigh's hearing, may
have utilized improper, and perhaps unlawful, procedures in seeking to
confirm certain information about a person the Navy believed to be one of
our members."

The letter reveals that AOL has already established channels to facilitate
queries from the government seeking information on AOL's subscribers.
("America Online has designated as liaison a lawyer, known to the Navy,
precisely for such purposes," the AOL lawyer tells the Navy.)  The letter
states AOL "is quite concerned about the practices of Navy personnel in
this matter, and most respectfully requests that the United States Navy
make clear to its personnel that they comply with the procedures outlined

But it wasn't AOL's first controversy over invasion of privacy 
( )  -- and it
may not be the last.  Though AOL has touted the ability to block AOL's
pop-up advertisements, MSNBC reports AOL may soon "expire" user requests
to block the ads after a year -- presumably as a technique to generate
more advertising revenue.  ( ) 


Yahoo! Internet Life reporters camped out on AOL, using the "Buddy List" 
feature to watch for sign-ons from alumni of Monica Lewinsky's college. 
( ) 
Alumni screen names had been published on the college's web site, and at
least one alum reported they'd already been contacted by four other news

"Would you be willing to discuss this matter with us now, briefly and
electronically?" the magazine's editor asked the subscriber.  "I'd love
to," the alum replied, "but honestly I cannot remember her." 

But another enterprising AOL member has already created a Monica Lewinsky
fan club.  ( ) 

        David Cassel
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