AOL Watch: Requiem for Netscape

David Cassel (
Mon, 23 Nov 1998 20:21:44 -0400

		 R e q u i e m   F o r   N e t s c a p e


Rumors circulate about a complex deal involving AOL, Netscape, and Sun
Microsystems.  But the talks appear rooted in mind-boggling optimism.  
AOL hopes to acquire Netscape in an all-stock transaction, according to
preliminary reports -- though MSNBC's correspondent notes that using a
standard benchmark, AOL's stock is trading at a highly-inflated "127 times
year-ahead earnings."  ( )

Indeed, last year AOL's net income was just $92 million.  At a rate of $92
million annually, reaching the target figure of $4 billion would take 43

Fury over the proposed acquisition is already building.  Monday morning
Jon Katz -- a former HotWired correspondent -- published scathing
criticism on the internet-culture web site SlashDot.  "The bad news about
the new Netscape-AOL-Sun conglomerate is that the battle between
individual expression and freedom and corporation domination and greed on
the Web just got a lot uglier."  The unwelcome development?  "We're
getting the one thing the world needs the least: another giant, powerful
and synergistic information hydra.

"We don't, as journalists are saying, finally have some competition for
Microsoft. We just have another Microsoft."

"And the good news?  There isn't any."

Katz isn't the only one concerned.  Glenn Davis, chief technical officer
of Project Cool, told Salon -- an AOL content partner -- that "This may be
the death knell for the openness of the Web, making the Web into a closed
thing in which only big corporate entities can survive..." 
( )
Internet users reacted in stunned disbelief to the preliminary reports.  
"Unbelievable," an AOL Watch reader commented.  "AOL clearly can't run
their own service, and like Corel, they are buying out people...

"Instead of fixing up what they have already."

"Can this be true???"  one U.K. network administrator wondered.  Because
if so, "I'd have to hate both Internet Explorer AND Netscape..."  Another
observer described the whole potential spectacle as "the aging town whore
marrying the village idiot."

Netscape appears defensive.  The New York Times reports that Jamie
Zawinski, one of the founders of Netscape, told a reporter Monday that "I
think AOL still has all the stigma that it always had, as far as image
goes...  My friends keep saying '' and then laughing

A Netscape executive argumentatively told the Wall Street Journal, "Look,
at some point, you have to put business interests over personal ones,"

But Owen Thomas, editor of Ditherati, heard a different message.  "We sell
out on internet time, too."  ( )

Pundits may have underestimated the depth of anti-AOL sentiment.  "AOL
sent me software so I could 'come back' to AOL," one Nevada user
remembered recently.  "I took the 3.5-inch disk and erased it, loaded it
with pornography, re-packaged it, and set it at the local supermarket."  
In fact, AOL appears to have created millions of disgruntled former
subscribers.  On September 16, 1996, the Washington Post reported that in
one three-month period of time AOL lost 1.7 million members -- masking the
defections by adding 2.1 million new members.

In this culture clash, the stakes are high.  It's still unclear, for
instance, how a Netscape acquisition would affect the blossoming open
source movement -- in which software code is freely distributed so that
programmers worldwide can review its design and suggest improvements.  
The code for Netscape's browser software has been made available -- but
AOL's hasn't.  Jon Katz roots his concerns in related perceptions about
AOL's philosophy.  "They never, ever, celebrate individual freedom, or the
toll-free movement of information and ideas."

Indeed, webmaster James Egelhof thoroughly documented just the opposite:
AOL's past use of a "banned words list" to patrol chat rooms for
unacceptable content.

Within 24 hours of the creation of his web site, AOL's webmaster had
threatened Egelhof with a lawsuit.

And AOL's legacy of censorship never truly left the service.  To this day,
AOL users are unable to create a chat room which contains the letters
"boy" or "GIF" in their name -- even if the chat room is about the Dallas
Cowboys or Christmas Gift Ideas!

Actions like these, to Katz, are the predictable behavior of giant
corporations.  "They answer not to individual people, but to coalitions of
lawyers, analysts, marketers, stockholders and boards of directions. All
of these diverse interests share precisely the same goal: making the
maximum amount of money in whatever way is feasible."

Philosophical issues quickly turned to real issues earlier this month on a
mailing list for administrators of an internet-relayed chat network named
EFNet.  "IRC" offers a popular alternative to AOL's chat rooms, allowing
real-time conversations across the internet.  The EFNet staffers 
complained AOL refused to allocate enough resources to handle abuse of
AOL's connection to the network.  Erik Fichtner, Unix Systems
Administrator for AOL's Internet Operations, responded "Life sucks.  Buy a
helmet. "

AOL's irresponsible attitude resulted in a unanimous vote to "de-link"
their server by the other administrators -- and to ban AOL's users from
connecting to the network, according to Interactive Week.,4586,2161314,00.html

A similar incident had already occurred with a second chat network,
"DalNet".  "The server began to falter, as it was understaffed and had no
active administrator," remembers David Knepper, who maintains the
network's largest server in St. Louis.  While AOL users weren't banned
outright from this network, they now have to locate their own connection,
since AOL's is no longer operating.

Ironically, AOL recently mailed CD-ROMs promising potential subscribers
"The entire Internet."  It's a promise which has gotten harder to deliver.  
Amazingly, AOL's unresponsiveness has even gotten their users banned from
the web site of an Australian exhibitionist who displays soft-pornography
pictures of herself on-line. Users trying to access Bernadette Taylor's
"Photo Gallery" from AOL now receive a "forbidden" message instead. 
( )

But EFNet's block will have a very personal effect on some subscribers --
like Lori G. in Berkeley, California, who used EFNet to access chats
devoted to recovering from drug and alcohol addiction.  "When I was on
that channel it saved my life during a time of deep depression," Lori
remembered.  "I was dealing with chemical depression at the time.  EFNet
saved my life because I was able to go in there and talk to people who were
in recovery and had dealt with the same issue and got alot of good

Channels related to Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous were
available on EFNet -- which also play a role in ongoing recovery
processes.  "When sometimes with my busy schedule I didn't have time to go
to a real meeting," Lori remembers, "I could go on-channel.  I'm
prevented from doing that now."

Now accessing the site returns the following error message.

	Closing Link: (PERM/AOL access denied due
	to the failure of AOL's admins to cooperate with the network.

	*** Disconnected

Is AOL covering up the problem?  One AOL Watch reader reports that when
they phoned AOL to complain, AOL's customer service representative "said
its a minor glitch."

"I asked the women if she could tell me the truth," the subscriber

She hung up on him....

And on-line complainers fared no better.  Keyword IRC takes users to AOL's
"Winsock Message Boards" -- which are suspiciously barren of any posts at

		Topics:  0
		Total Posts:  0
		*** There are no topics in this area. ***

Users attempting to create a new topic receive the following message:

		You are not entitled to perform that function.
( )

AOL's arrogance is already being factored into analysis of their proposed
deal with Netscape.  San Francisco Chronicle columnist Tom Abate wryly
reports one incident which suggests it might be a match made in heaven.  
Abate remembers a user who wanted to e-mail Netscape about a technical
problem.  "But try as he might, he couldn't find a place to register a
gripe. Canned answers to frequently asked questions he could get. But
two-way communication seemed to have fallen out of Netscape's customer
service lexicon....  'To my dismay, they literally don't have a place for

"That already sounds like AOL to me," Abate concluded.

AOL's bad reputation continues to grow.  "AOL may be the biggest, but
Microsoft Network is the best national Internet service provider,
according to a new J.D. Power and Associates survey," reports the Los
Angeles Daily News.

Fine print on AOL's newly- mailed CD-ROM's continues to warn potential
subscribers that "Availability may be limited especially during peak
times."  Red Herring even published an essay titled "Is AOL insulting our
intelligence," quoting an AOL executive gloating "We raised our prices and
our customers stayed with us.  Our services went down and our customers
still stayed with us..."

AOL creates most of their problems themselves.  Subscribers in New
Hampshire complained that, though they selected a local access number,
AOL's software switched them to a long-distance one instead.  
( ) And more problems
surfaced in October, when it was learned that AOL had failed to adopt a
simple security procedure for their domain -- when e-mail was re-routed
for several hours by a simple prank.  "AOL had designated the lowest
security clearance for changing its InterNIC records," C|Net reported,
"which made it easier for a hacker to wreak havoc.",4,27655,00.html

"You've Got Weak Security" read the headline on Wired News.

Ironically, that same day, AOL's exit screen was plugging a weight-loss
program with the phrase:  "Some folks are just born to lose."

But some mail blocks appear deliberate.  In September, New York attorney
Mark Lawless complained AOL was blocking messages sent to AOL by one of
his clients --, a pornography site named after the
residence of the President of the United States.

Customers aren't the only ones unhappy.  Steve Case's most-recent
Community Update suggests that AOL has more volunteers than paid
employees--and one web site published what it says are the results of an
in-house survey whose results AOL apparently tried to suppress.  The
number who'd recommend joining "AOL Community Incorporated" plummeted
from less than half in June of 1997 (40%) to just 28% in April of 1998.

"Remember, all information found in here is CONFIDENTIAL!" one screen
warned -- a image of which is now publicly displayed on the web archive.

More negativity (
apparently led Steve Case to acknowledge the work of AOL's Community
Leaders in his monthly update for November.  One former volunteer reports
AOL attempted to further shore-up loyalty by mailing Community Leaders an
AOL promotional CD-ROM, along with a certificate of appreciation.

Unfortunately, for many of the staffers, the certificates of appreciation
arrived with eleven cents postage due.

There have been other instances of AOL doing whatever they felt like.
Recently AOL subscribers experienced the "Thank You" screen -- a paid
advertisement for CBS television programs.  "They're going to create more
ill will with users," an analyst for Forrester Research warned C|Net.,4,26647,00.html

Even worse -- installing the ability to display the advertisements
required a ten-minute download to subscriber's hard drive as they signed
off the service.  The downloads were not optional.

One AOL Watch reader suggested that if the ads return, subscribers can
fool AOL into not dispensing them by pretending to be a non-adult account.  
Another option:

	1)  Close AOL rather than signing off
	2)  Hit ENTER as soon as the ad pops up. "It stops loading and you
	    can get out pretty fast."

This propensity for advertising raises concerns about AOL's proposed
acquisition of Netscape among consumer advocates.  The Consumer Project on
Technology's James Love -- who advises Ralph Nader -- shared his concerns
with Reuters Monday.  "I think it's a real shame that the two major
browsers will be controlled by companies whose major mission in life is to
bombard consumers with advertisements and steer them toward their partners
in electronic commerce." ( )

Elsewhere, Love has also indicated other concerns.  Netscape's browser is
a useful tool for local companies providing internet access -- services
which compete with AOL.

Netscape and AOL would be an odd combination.  One recent MSNBC story
suggest that AOL might move from their proprietary format to the
state-of-the-art HTML language being used for web pages.  
( ) Unfortunately, the story also
suggests this change won't happen until near the year 2000 -- and many
users remember that AOL's 4.0 software arrived almost two years after
AOL's original predictions.  It could be worse.  Until recently the
Houston Chronicle posted special instructions for AOL users trying to
access their web site using AOL's web browser. "America Online does not
fully and correctly support the current HyperText Transfer Protocol that
governs use of the Web.  For this reason and others, there are special
problems and requirements both for registering and for logging onto from AOL...."  And others remember the day AOL
inadvertently blocked thousands of web sites if they were hosted on an ISP
using the popular Apache web-page server.

Ironically, while Netscape looks at a reported $4 billion offer, James
Egelhof -- the webmaster of the "Why AOL Sucks" site -- would be happy
simply to find a sponsor.  Egelhof's rationale?  "I'd like to make some
money -- so I can eat."

Jon Katz sees a larger political issue behind the looming Netscape deal:
"corporatization versus the individual."  In an interview with AOL Watch,
he explained his sense of its urgency. "Government policies should go
towards encouraging smaller users and enterpreneurs, not encourage bigness
and mergers in tele-communications."  And when it comes to searching for
web content, individuals can vote with their feet.  "I would urge AOL
subscribers to support smaller, more entrepeneurial sites whenever they
can," Katz told AOL Watch.

Katz's SlashDot essay elaborates.  "The Netscape Marc Andreesen and
Netscape employees created in the l980's was one of those very few modern
media companies with some ethic beyond greed -- it was, like the
Open-Source Software movement, founded on the idea that making money and
keeping the Net open and free were not incompatible.

"Netscape encouraged something no large corporation in the history of
media has ever done -- the free distribution of a valuable and creative
product.  You will never live to see AOL or Sun do that, or now, if this
deal goes through, Netscape again either."

Katz returns to what he sees as the underlying issue:  "who will run
cyberspace, individuals or corporations?"

Katz's advice?  "The mainstream media was happy to hear about the latest
new conglomerate taking shape this morning. It's is already presenting the
devouring of Netscape by AOL as the emergence of a healthy competitor to
Microsoft (which by comparison, had revenues of $14 billion last year).

"Don't buy it."


In September users found that when they called AOL's billing department at
888 265 8003, it reminded them they could still submit a claim for a
refund in the class action lawsuit against AOL.

Then reminded them that claims had to be submitted before December 1,
   David Cassel

		This is the 100th issue of AOL Watch.

   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