AOL Watch: Breaking AOL's Grip

David Cassel (
Mon, 6 Sep 1999 22:56:43 -0800

		  B r e a k i n g   A O L ' s   G r i p


Moderators of a forum for the American Civil Liberties Union have
announced their forum has been asked to leave AOL -- after six years on
the service.  "It simply means, 'Get out!' " a Deputy Forum Leader and
Board Moderator posted.  "It means we need to find a place to go and start
all over again."

In later posts he indicated his announcement had angered ACLU management
and AOL -- but he'd worried members would arrive to find their bulletin
boards gone after AOL boots the ACLU in November.

The organization's focus on civil liberties had led them to negotiate a
special exemption from AOL's Terms of Service, according to ACLU host
Celeste Whitlow. In an on-line editorial she cited diverse groups --
including breast-feeding mothers, Native Americans, Buddhists, and Wiccans
-- who'd "sought the free-speech sanctuary of the ACLU Forum on AOL to
escape discriminatory harassment in other areas of AOL."

Users need these protections because AOL's censorship policies can be
abused, Whitlow reports.  "I know of instances where a flurry of TOS
reports against one AOL client will be sent at once in an effort to get
the targeted AOL client issued three TOS citations at once -- thus
terminating their AOL account."  The end result is unmistakable.  "The
targeted AOL client signs on the next day to read e-mail only to find that
their account has been terminated."

Another board host posted that "In the past communities have continued
mainly because they ended up coming here to the ACLU forum after their
areas were shut down.  Now where will they go?"  A third board host added
that when the free speech zone leaves AOL, they will too.

It may indicate a storm to come.  AOL has closed many forums since they
ended hourly usage fees in 1996 -- but the ACLU is an organization famous
for its public activism. The post describing a pending closure appeared
Thursday in the first Messaging area -- Ethics and Morality -- in the "Hot
Topic of the Day" folder, and in the four days since it's already received
nearly 3000 responses. "I figure it best we make the announcement while we
still have a forum on which to announce it," Deputy Forum Leader "Old
Will" noted, "and some time remaining in which all our hosts and guests
can begin to prepare."

"I don't exactly know what we can do!" one user posted.

"Well, whatever it is," Old Will replied, "do it now."

Early suggestions had included e-mailing Steve Case.  Will noted "it is
probably everyone's last chance to tell him what they think of him, at
least on AOL.  That alone means something."  Will estimates the number of
posters at 100,000.  But plans seemed to solidify after a poster asked the
question, "I wonder how many we are in number really?"

"Enough to take a really big bite out of the monthly revenues if we all
left," Host Susan Menchaca replied.

100,000 full-time users would bring AOL a yearly income over $26

The revolution has begun.  "We have two accounts with AOL," Menchaca added
later, "and the message we're sending them is that when the ACLU goes, so
do our accounts."  Later, Menchaca added she would also be discontinuing
"the other five accounts owned by other members of my family...."

Another host favored an additional plan a poster suggested: "Send e-mails
to all the annoying pop-up advertisers saying you regret that soon you
won't be plagued by them as you are leaving AOL due to the ACLU forum

"If you have used any of the vendors here on AOL (sent flowers, bought
books, made plane reservations, etc...) they would be the ones to target

An appropriately inspiring quote from Helen Keller is displayed for
visitors to the ACLU area.

	"I am only one, 
	 but still I am one, 
	 I cannot do everything, 
	 but still I can do something."

AOL Watch invites users who cancel their accounts over the announced
closure of the ACLU forum to submit their comments to the AOL Watch web
site.  ( ) "I'm trying to cancel my AOL account, but
unable to even get logged on long enough to do so," one AOL Watch reader
complained recently.  Ironically, had they succeeded in signing on, they
would've found that AOL no longer allows users to cancel accounts on-line!  
(Users must dial 1-800-827-6364.) Several users have also reported that
after cancelling their accounts, AOL continued billing them anyways -- and
customer service representatives are paid hefty bonuses for dissuading
callers from cancelling!

One 10th grade student inadvertently identified another problem. They
posted to the ACLU forum that they were so angry with closure worries
that, "Come November, I'll probably move to Compuserve."

"AOL owns Compuserve now, too," an ACLU Board host observed.

In fact, the New York Times notes that 39% of the time Americans spend
on-line is spent using services AOL controls.

And AOL "will set out to subsume all other media by delivering its service
on television screens, cellular telephones and myriad other devices, in
addition to computers," the Times reported.  AOL's power over the ACLU's
on-line area may soon be magnified across many other realms of content.
AOL is also scurrying for ownership of traditional broadcast mediums and
is releasing a line of AOL-branded books -- and they've even formed an
alliance with CompUSA.,4,35867,00.html,4,36140,00.html

Plans for AOL TV, at least, have drawn skepticism. "The 2000 release
target supersedes previous launch dates 1997, 1998, and 1999," one on-line
commentator noted.  ( ) But an 
inflated stock price has enabled AOL to purchase already-existing
communications products -- including Netscape, ICQ, WinAmp, Shoutcast, and
even Moviefone.  And with ownership, these companies come under AOL's
corporate philosophy.  AOL-owned ICQ recently used a word-filtering
accessory drawing on copyrighted material from CyberSitter, according to
Wired News.  In a recent story, the software company's President described
the list being used as "illegally obtained."

But more importantly, Wired News notes that the chosen list blocked
references even to the National Organize of Women and the Gay and Lesbian
Alliance Against Defamation, as well as any use of the words "safe sex"
and "gay rights."

AOL's oversight has seen unfortunate incidents.  In June, Wired News also
reported that intercepted cell phone conversations were being broadcast
over AOL's Shoutcast Service.

AOL's wide-reaching influence is starting to create suspicions.  Earlier
this year the domain belonged to a web designer in New
Jersey.  C|Net reported that AOL contacted Network Solutions Incorporated,
the organization which oversees domain names -- and the group later
revoked the woman's ownership for failing to include her suite number with
her address!,4,38419,00.html

Every AOL session now includes a reminder of the incident -- since all
sessions on AOL now include a mandatory pop-up ad for AOL's search engine.
Calling it "the most lame search engine of all," one user e-mailed keyword
"suggestions" with a request to remove the mandatory ad -- "and got a
response that did not refer in any way to my question."

Days after the aolsearch incident, critics at had their
connection to the internet severed.  Salon reports that AOL officials had
complained about two screen-shots they said infringed their copyright --
but the site's webmaster warned Salon of a larger issue.  "The thought of
so much power in the hands of a company that seems to know no limits in
moving to silence its enemies is scary."

Indeed, nearly identical pressures were once brought against "Recondite
Information" -- a highly critical site documenting AOL security breaches
with similar screen-shots of AOL software.  Charges of "copyright
infringement" were directed to the site's service provider yet again --
but this time the  information was preserved by a series of mirror sites.
(Including the "Why AOL Sucks" page.)

These concerns were given new urgency when AOL successfully lobbied for
the ability to handle domain name registrations themselves.,4,35752,00.html

In fact, in several incidents AOL has started quietly asserting their
control over the flow of on-line communication.  Recently, AOL even sued
AT&T asserting intellectual property claims to phrases like "You've Got

A judge threw out the lawsuit -- but AOL continued undaunted.  They've
also trademarked the name "knock-knock" for an instant message feature.

But in a much larger tactic, AOL blocked Microsoft customers from
messaging AOL customers.  One analyst told the San Francisco Chronicle,
"In the online chat rooms, people seem to be turning against AOL about 5
to 1..."  Yet AOL persists, apparently ignoring their customers' wishes --
and their real motive may be controlling that audience so they can better
flood them with AOL advertisements! The Chronicle notes messaging
applications "provide an ideal platform for gathering profile data on
users and then saturating them with targeted advertisements...."

AT&T General Counsel Jim Cicconi told C|Net that AOL "has now made evident
the closed nature of its own system by sabotaging instant messaging
communications between its customers and those of other ISPs."  In fact,
one of AOL's first moves with the newly-acquired Mozilla browser -- after
closing several popular Netscape forums -- was to stifle a plan to make it
compatible with various chat clients.,4,84-39736,00.html,4,35473,00.html,4,34867,00.html

Even AOL's participation in an internet content rating association could
also be a double-edged sword.  C|Net notes concerns that the problem with
ratings is "major online service providers could marginalize sites that
don't adopt them.",4,41248,00.html

In May AOL's Steve Case was admitted to a White House brain-storming
session on youth violence -- and AOL continues to assert their interests
in forums large and small.  Last week AOL's lawyers told the Florida
Supreme Court the on-line service could not be sued for a user's selling
of a child pornography videotape in AOL's chat rooms -- even though,
according to a lawyer for one of the children in the videotapes, AOL knew
about the sales.

But AOL's detractors are striking back.  The White House also became the
target for a demonstration in July from disgruntled AOL Community Leaders.

AOL had established new policies prohibiting minors from participating in
the Community Leader program -- though a San Francisco labor lawyer told
the New York Times that AOL's move could inadvertently buttress an ongoing
Department of Labor investigation.  Some Community Leaders have even taken
to court themselves, filing a class action lawsuit seeking to change the
way they're treated by AOL.

But this controversy echoes two remarkable lawsuits filed in 1995.  
Former volunteer Stanley Parker took AOL to a Los Angeles small claims
court -- and the court granted him subpoenas for AOL president Ted
Leonsis!  It's never been clear whether Leonsis was aware of the
subpoenas, but as San Francisco Deputy Mary Smith tracked Leonsis at the
Jupiter Communications conference (where he was scheduled to make an
appearance), Leonsis suddenly remember another appointment, and he was
replaced at the last minute by Steve Case....

"It didn't make much difference because they didn't show up," Parker
remembered -- and he won his case by default.  (AOL had sent the courts a
notice disputing the jurisdiction, but it never arrived.)  Parker was then
contacted by an AOL lawyer who Parker says tried to intimidate him with
threats of an appeal.  "She said I could take her offer, or they would
proceed to ask the court to vacate the judgment -- and informed me that
the court would do so."

In a November 1995 press release, Parker remembers the result of that
hearing.  "Commissioner Nyby asked the AOL attorney if he was the
representative from Virginia.  When the attorney replied 'No,'
Commissioner Nyby said 'Motion denied, next case'."

Parker felt vindicated in several ways.  "One of the reasons why I filed
my first lawsuit was to prove you could." At about the same time a friend
of Parker's named Erroll Trobee -- another former volunteer in
Pennsylvania -- was also suing AOL in his own local small claims court for
failure to pay back wages. AOL also argued against the jurisdiction in
that case -- and lost.

The cases should have been a warning to AOL about the legal issues they're
now facing.  In 1995 Trobee told a San Francisco legal newspaper that
"This case will never go to trial, because the implications are too great
if they lose.  It could change the way people think about minimum wage and
who you have to consider an employee."

AOL also faces threats in the marketplace.  Rob Enderle, an analyst with
the Giga Information Group, told C|Net that "being the largest doesn't
necessarily make you more than a target."  
(,4,84-37719,00.html ) In fact, last week
PC World cited reports from Zona Research that showed AOL's share of the
top markets had fallen, from 6 out of 10 respondents to just 4 out of 10
respondents.  A spokesperson for a local internet service in Portland
explained to the news organization that "As more people become educated
consumers, they realize there are other products and services available.

Earthlink CEO Sky Dayton is more blunt.  "AOL's approach is to dumb down
the Internet experience," he told CBS's MarketWatch.  "People actually
aren't dumb."

Other services are also anxious to pick up disgruntled AOL subscribers.
Excite's Chief Executive told the New York Times that "more than half our
new customers are ex-AOL users" -- and AOL now faces the possibility of
$90 million advertising blitz by Mindspring. "We want to become a serious
competitor to AOL," Mindspring's marketing director told Reuters.  
"Nobody has stood up and proclaimed being an alternative to AOL."  Their
ad campaign's slogan?  "You'd be happier using Mindspring."

But the opposition to AOL has moved beyond billboards.  As AOL lobbied for
access to San Francisco cable lines, Excite placed protestors dressed as
pawns on a chess board in front of City Hall.  Their message?  "Don't be a
pawn in AOL's game."

Ultimately, AOL's demands were voted down.  And just weeks later,
Microsoft was making noises that threatened AOL's core business! In early
August, Microsoft announced they were considering an internet service that
would much cheaper than AOL -- if not free!

That week AOL's stock price fell lower than it had been since January. But
large shareholders had already cashed in $4.61 billion worth of AOL stock
in April, the Associated Press reported.  Later investors were shaken when
even Steve Case sold off 9 percent of his stock, and AOL President Robert
Pittman sold 13 percent.  Changing stock prices are enough to affect a
company's operation, the Washington Post reports.  Drops "can wipe out
paper fortunes, damage morale, crimp expansion prospects and darken the
company's very view of the future."

In fact, stock may affect one very important facet of AOL -- the
motivation of employees waiting on their stock options!  The Washington
Post also ran a profile of an AOL content producer whose previous
positions included "clerking at Kmart, washing dishes at Lobster King and
scrubbing toilets in a factory."  Because of company stock options, he was
able to retire from AOL a millionaire at the age of 27 -- and he vividly
described four years at AOL waiting to be eligible for the options.  "I
wallowed in mediocrity and underachieved like I always do, and I

In the early days, the employee remembered, "Sometimes all the staffers
would quit what they were working on and play video games." Later,
dissatisfied with the company, the Post reports that the employee "made a
conscious decision to underachieve.  He would float along below radar
level until he hit the magical four-year mark and his stock options could
be cashed in."

Though AOL has made a series of successful business decisions, it's all
but abandoned the user experiences -- at least, judging by the comments of
one AOL Watch reader. "The Web browser, the e-mail, the chat rooms, the
security, the whole AOL experience is just plain awful. Terrible. Pitiful.
Not even worth wasting any more of my time on."

Even AOL's "Letter from Steve Case" hasn't been updated since June.
September 6 Case was still trumpeting resources to "finalize summer plans"
-- "Now that school years are ending and summer is upon us." Case's
message inadvertently taunted September readers with 30 Summer Escapes and
Family Summer vacations, and promised "Later this summer, look for Summer
Boredom Busters..."

Meanwhile, "Steve's Mailbag" answers the ancient question "Why should I
upgrade to AOL 4.0? What does it offer that AOL 3.0 doesn't?"  

But the growing list of dissatisfied customers now includes the large
numbers dreading the closure of the ACLU forum.  "I wish it were a joke or
scam,"  Message Host Susan Menchaca posted to the forum, "but it's not;
it's true.  I've already received an official e-mail from the ACLU
confirming it."

Unfortunately, customers seeking explanations from AOL receive
less-informed answers.  "As far as I am aware the ACLU area will not be
closed down," one AOL support staffer replied.  "This is an area that many
of our members use so there is no reason for it to close down." (The
message then referred the user to AOL's technical support area. "Thank you
for using AOL!!!!" it concluded.  "Regards, AOL Technical Support.")

"I've already received verification from the 'top' that ACLU is being
closed down," Menchaca posted -- "and I trust them a lot more than AOL
tech support."


AOL's attempts to publicize their search engine seems to have turned the
other search engines against them.  Visiting with the
question "Why do you suck?" produced a number of evasive answers collated
from search engines around the web.

Results from InfoSeek pointed users to a site answering the question:
"Why stop supporting AOL?"

   David Cassel
   More information -         ,2822,11615,00.html,4586,2270607,00.html


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