AOL Watch: Special Persecutions

David Cassel (
Fri, 21 Aug 1998 07:42:44 -0400

		   S p e c i a l   P e r s e c u t i o n s


Is AOL planning to send spam?  The e-mail section at keyword "Marketing
Preferences"  contains a little-noticed passage:  in the future, it
specifies, AOL may send unsolicited commercial e-mail to subscribers "as
one of its many member benefits."  Only users who pro-actively request not
to receive the e-mail can be sure to avoid AOL's spam. 

While it's not clear what AOL's long-range plans are, disturbing signs
have already surfaced. In a press release titled "Spammers Triumph Over
Consumers," California Assemblywoman Debra Bowen reported that an
anti-spam bill was killed in the state Senate "at the behest of the
California Internet Industry Alliance." (  
AOL is listed as a client of the alliance's lobbying firm, "Governmental
Advocates, Inc" ( -- and Bowen
is concerned. "This vote does nothing but protect the advertisers and the
internet service providers (ISPs) who want to make money off of
unsolicited e-mail at the expense of consumers," her office told AOL
Watch.  "The ISP's don't want to limit spam or to let computer users opt
out of getting spam," she complained, "they want to legitimize it so they
can make money from the spammers...." 

The Coalition Against Unsolicited E-mail reported still more troubling
signs to Interactive Week:  AOL remained silent when a Congressional
subcommittee attempted to legalize one-time spams (if the spammers agreed
to exclude people who objected from future mailings.)  "Maybe its not
their intent," the group's co-founder said of AOL, "but this law would
tend to put their competitors out of business.",3442,2129133,00.html

Bowen's office still hopes to fight spam in California.  "The bill may be
being brought back to life today," a spokesperson for the legislator told
AOL Watch Wednesday morning, "after pressure from the consumer groups who
believe that the average citizen should have recourse against spammers,
not just the ISPs."

Spam from AOL is sure to be unwelcome.  In his September, 1996 Community
Update, Steve Case identified junk e-mail as "the number one complaint we
hear from our members." But two years later, AOL has made little headway.
"I finally talked a friend into an AOL subscription recently," one
Washington Post columnist remembered, "and after two days online he was
appalled by the onslaught of e-mail inviting him to porn sites. He hadn't
even sent out any e-mail of his own yet!"  The New York Times notes that
AOL's chat rooms may be responsible for some of the spam.  "AOL members
may be unaware that when they visit a chat room, they are publicizing
their existence to advertisers," one recent Times article noted -- adding
that the rooms might need a sign reading "Chat at your own risk." 
( ) 
The San Francisco Chronicle's Henry Norr sees more trouble ahead.  Earlier
this month, he wrote "I hate to think what it's going to look like, when
the spammers start taking advantage of Version 4.0's e-mail enhancements."

But AOL also faces scrutiny over their compliance with existing laws.  "We
were in the same building with Monica Lewinsky," remembers Carl Purcell --
describing depositions for the lawsuit he and his wife filed against AOL. 
They were also required to ship a large number of documents to California
("We figure that it's going to be two or three footlockers full!" Purcell
estimated earlier this month) -- and AOL soon threatened a countersuit. 
"It's becoming very burdensome on us," Purcell told AOL Watch, "but we
plan to stick it out all the way."  Purcell says that in May of 1997,
while they were negotiating over rights for his photographs, AOL abruptly
terminated Purcell's "Pictures of the World"  forum in AOL's Travel
channel -- yet continued offering their photographs on-line!

AOL eventually removed the photographs -- a full three weeks after being
contacted by the Purcells' attorney -- but the situation got worse. 
Browsing AOL's "AOL Press" area, Purcell says he found a banner
advertising "Free Clip Art for Your Web Site" -- and discovered more than
742 of his finest portfolio pictures had been released into the public
domain!  (Purcell told AOL Watch hundreds of these images were, in fact,
registered with the U.S.  copyright office...)  Karl Olson, the Purcell's
lawyer, spoke to AOL Watch at the end of July, claiming that AOL had
instructed witnesses not to answer questions at the deposition.  "It's
unusual to run into the kind of obstruction of justice that they seem to
be intent on practicing in this case," he complained.... 

Ironically, AOL was found in contempt-of-court in an earlier case -- and
its legal aftermath is still continuing!  The citation came while fighting
a lawsuit filed by Erroll Trobee, who commented in October that "The final
Sanction Hearing in court, prior to settlement, was, in part, to determine
if one of their attorneys should be charged with perjury!"  Trobee's
original suit was filed in 1993 -- but August of 1998 finds him back in
court again, arguing that AOL isn't honoring the terms of their

Others are taking a hard look at AOL, too.  Earlier this month AOL
released a quarterly report without final figures for their net income,
saying only that "discussions" with the Securities Exchange Commission
"are continuing."  Today's Wall Street Journal reports that "due to the
poor quality of some recent corporate earnings reports," the SEC may limit
write-offs when other companies are acquired -- and noted the AOL
incident, along with SEC concerns about the way companies account for
specific acquisition costs.  ("Accounting critics say some acquiring
companies are reporting dubious write-offs for these costs," the Journal
reports, "to artificially 'manage' subsequent earnings.")

AOL even figures in a parody of a lawsuit.  Feed -- a web magazine --
posted an alternative account of President Clinton's testimony to special
prosecutor Kenneth Starr.  "At the urging of Vice President Al Gore and
senior advisor Ira Magaziner, the White House has persuaded Special
Prosecutor Ken Starr to conduct the interrogation in an AOL chat room,"
their site quips.  A satirical transcript then depicts PREZ179 typing "i
never brok the laws in this country" in response to questions posed by

The tongue-in-cheek "transcript" also shows Clinton's testimony being
interrupted by a user named "FunBOY", who by-passes the special
prosecutor's examination for a question of his own -- "age/sex check?" 
But despite AOL's own set of rules, some subscribers found that transcript
isn't far from the grim reality on AOL.  The September issue of Wired
magazine describes computer classes being conducted by Apple co-founder
Steve Wozniak for fifth- through eighth-graders in Los Gatos, California. 
As Wozniak demonstrated a "private, kid- friendly room" on AOL, one female
students repeated the obscenity she read on the screen.  ("At first
glance," writes the article's author, "it is hard to understand how the
complexities of AOL chat rooms can hold the interest of the man who helped
invent the personal computer.") 

The article's conclusion provides a telling answer.  "It is not the simple
commands on AOL that interest him," writes Wired's Gary Wolf, "but the
flash of recognition that a system, no matter how complicated, is still
only a system; that it can be explored, understood, and altered."  Wolf
notes that before inventing the Apple II, Wozniak used a "blue box" to
illegally place long-distance phone calls (including a famous prank phone
call to the Vatican) -- and AOL itself isn't immune to hacker attacks. 
Pranksters hit in early August, re-setting the password on the screen name
"IMCensored."  (Ironically, the account belonged to James Egelhof, the
author of the "Why AOL Sucks" page--a long-time critic of AOL's security.)

The breached account was apparently a case of mistaken identity.  Egelhof
created the screen name in 1995, when AOL's webmaster threatened legal
action against him and the internet service hosting his "Why AOL Sucks"
page.  ( ) In 1996 Egelhof began
archiving copies of the "AOL Watch" newsletter--which may have confused
the attackers, who inserted the name of AOL Watch editor David Cassel into
the member profile for "IMCensored" (listing as his hobby "Being
compromised by Vango and Glaze.") A web page was also created with an
article titled "Who Watches the AOL Watcher" -- correctly listing the
screen names on Egelhof's sub-account.  But Egelhof, who was on vacation
in Europe, was unaffected by the incident.  "I am a little unclear as to
why they think you are Mr. Aolsucks," he told David Cassel, "or why you
would have AOL screen names like JamesE33." 

Hacker chat rooms are claiming the breach involved an in-house contact was
involved--but is it that easy to perforate AOL's security?  The guestbook
on one AOL watchdog page suggests a possible answer.  One post reports
seeing an AOL help-wanted ad at a laundromat -- "Hanging on the wall right
up there with the signs for free kittens to good homes." 
( ) One AOL observer offered a
similar assessment of the company's security problems.  "Would you care if
you're being paid $7/hour?"  ( ) 

Other potential holes have also surfaced.  Several AOL Watch readers
report a new software automates "brute force" attacks on AOL screen names
-- which try to guess passwords with a list of commonly-used candidates. 
("Lists go from 10 passwords to 50,000," claimed one hacking enthusiast.) 
But other ways also exist to extract information from AOL's database. A
critic of the Orange County Register was simply unmasked by the newspaper
with what Wired News called "a fairly easy legal maneuver." 

AOL may hope their 4.0 software will plug at least some of the service's
holes -- and decrease the number of people cancelling their accounts.  But
some subscribers remain unimpressed.  ("Meet the new AOL," one quipped,
"same as the old AOL.  Yet another irrefutable reason that AOL sucks.") 
Jim Evans, finance editor for Upside, sees trouble ahead.  "As the Web's
learning curve ramps up and cable modems/DSL become readily available and
easier to use," Evans wrote recently, "AOLs anachronistic ease-of-use
benefits will become less of a market differentiator and more of an
epitaph: 'Here lies AOL. It was easy to use'."  

He doubts prospects for AOL's future success.  "[W]hile some investors are
willing to bet that the stars of today will be the stars of tomorrow,"
Evans concludes, "I'm unwilling to say that. It's my guess that there has
to be something out there that's better. The future of the Internet
depends on it." 

In fact, it took AOL nearly two years to develop the software -- and on
July 30, C|Net reported that only the Windows version of AOL's 4.0
software had been released, with Macintosh users limited to a "preview"
version.  (,4,24802,00.html )  But some
users aren't impressed.  "When there comes a day that I'm forced to use
4.0, that's when I'll abandon AOL," an AOL Watch reader complained -- and
one former AOL Community Leader concurs.  "The day I'm forced to look at
someone else's fonts and colors, is the day I TOS in the towel," they
announced.  (Another subscriber agreed.  "What is the point of letting
people choose different fonts in chat rooms?" they asked AOL Watch.  "The
rooms are in a total state of chaos already!  Why ADD to the problem?" 
they wondered.) 

The San Francisco Chronicle concluded the 4.0 software "doesn't deliver
any revolutionary breakthrough" -- and in some cases, it's apparently made
things worse.  Yesterday AOL's "System Status Report" reported that the
software's auto-update feature for weather could cause users to receive an
error message stating "The information you requested is currently
unavailable."  There was no estimated time for repair--and one user found
that the 4.0 upgrade actually made their experience worse.  "After four
hours of downloading (30 megs on a 28.8 modem) and several cut off
connnections later, it wouldn't install!" they complained.  "So I tried to
reinstall AOL 3.0. Of course, half-way through setup, a file was
corrupted, and it could not continue."  Their conclusion?  "AOL was
definitely put here by the devil to brainwash and demoralize America ever

Subscribers are starting to doubt AOL's ability to innovate.  Humorists at
""  even speculated that if AOL made cars, "AOL cars would
come with a steering wheel and AOL would claim no other cars had them." 
( )  (Another AOL Watch reader added
that in an AOL-built car, "the engine would turn itself off if you sat too
long at a traffic light.")  "Is it just me," one AOL Watch reader asked,
"or can you get EVERYTHING that's on AOL, straight from the internet for
less money?  Every AOL feature has a FREE internet equivalent, which is
typically BETTER." 

Even the Washington Post seems to agrees.  "No longer do consumers have to
fork over $20 a month to subscribe to America Online or the like,"
reporter Beth Berselli writes this morning -- citing the free e-mail and
web-page services that make it possible to bypass AOL altogether!  "This
is the democratization of the Internet," a local college professor tells
Berselli -- adding that now, "the Internet will really start to touch
people it would not have otherwise touched."

Those subscribers should be outraged by AOL's pricing, according to one
AOL Watch reader.  "I don't know what Steve Case is doing," they
complained.  "He is sitting there charging us all $21.95 a month for
something that isn't even worth $1.  For e-mail there are all those free
e-mail services such as Juno, Yahoo, and Hotmail."  In fact, the switch
constituted something of an upgrade.  "I use Juno for my important
e-mail," they reported, "because AOL is too slow and unreliable."  After
happily making the transition, the subscriber paused to savor the final
irony.  "Juno is free, and AOL is charging us all $21.95 a month...." 

Yet despite loud choruses of criticism, Steve Case recently made the
audacious prediction that AOL "might have a shot at becoming the most
profitable, most respected company on Earth."  MSNBC's Barton Crockett
asked an Internet and technology stock analyst at Salomon Smith Barney
what he thought of Case's prediction.  "Pretty hokey,"  they responded.

Michael Wolff -- a former editor of NetGuide -- has instead called America
Online "the most dysfunctional company in America....

Many former subscribers show an undisguised disrespect.  "I kept reading
Steve Case's messages about how they were going to improve the service,"
one subscriber told PC World, "but I wasn't seeing any improvement. And
then they said they'd have to raise their rates to make more improvements.
That was it for me."  The magazine's reporter also noted that remaining on
AOL can create other problems.  "Because you have to go through the AOL
network before you get out onto the Net," he wrote, "your access to the
Web and other Net resources is slower than when you use a more direct ISP
connection."  ( ) 

Perhaps Steve Case simply feels his subscribers are simply gullible.  When
subscribers encounter web problems at keyword "Marvel" on AOL, an error
message states that "Cosmic rays are interfering with your data reception. 
Please stand by for re-transmission." 


Tuesday at 6 p.m. EST, an AOL Watch reader in Wisconsin began receiving a
troubling message.  No matter what keyword they tried to access, AOL
announced "Pardon the delay, this feature is temporarily closed for
maintenance or improvements.  Please try again later." 

AOL Watch received the same error message -- even when attempting to

        David Cassel
        More Information -


    Please forward with subscription information.   To subscribe to this
    list, type your correct e-mail address in the form at the bottom
    of the page at -- or send e-mail to

    To unsubscribe from the list, send a message to MAJORDOMO@AOLWATCH.ORG
    containing the phrase UNSUBSCRIBE AOLWATCH.


Cloud 9
AOL Sucks
Copyright © 1995-1998 All Rights Reserved.
Web service provided by Cloud 9 Internet