AOL Watch: Is AOL Blocking Your Mail?

David Cassel (
Mon, 17 Jan 2000 13:39:00 -0800

           I s   A O L   B l o c k i n g   Y o u r   M a i l ?


On September 6, the AOL Watch newsletter was sent to its 50,000 readers.
But subscribers on AOL didn't receive it.

Canvassing nearly two dozen of the list's AOL subscribers, all reported
the same thing:  the newsletter didn't reach their AOL mailboxes.  Had
AOL's "spam" filters made a mistake?  Or was the newsletter being deleted
because it had included the phone number for cancelling AOL accounts?

AOL's postmaster didn't respond to requests for comment.  But AOL's
privacy policy specifies AOL can read your e-mail "to protect the
company's rights and property."  Have they already invoked that clause?  
In July of 1997 Simutronics announced that AOL "without our knowledge, has
been deleting all e-mail from Simutronics addresses to AOL addresses."  A
gaming newsletter also reported e-mail from gaming company Sierra wasn't
reaching AOL addresses, and both incidents were cited in a lawsuit filed
by a third company.

Ziff-Davis News uncovered another incident, in which AOL, equating an
internet web site's "Thank you" notes to customers with unsolicited
commercial e-mail, began deliberately blocking the e-mail.
And one former AOL content partner told AOL Watch their goodbye to
staffmembers suspiciously failed to arrive.

In fact, AOL's Terms of Service also states they may block access to web
sites that are "injurious to AOL" -- and they may have already begun.  
The author of a book about on-line dating -- titled "You've Got Male" --
filed a lawsuit in November alleging AOL prevented their users from
accessing her site!  Reuters reported that AOL had earlier demanded she
stop selling the book and to never re-print it.  "My attorney told me,
'You may as well change the name of the book," the author commented,
"because you can't fight a big company like that'."

AOL has the power to control whether publishers can reach their audience.  
The "disappearance" of the last edition of this newsletter 
( ) meant that many AOL Watch
readers didn't received a post for nearly ten months.  (Ironically, that 
edition had been titled "Breaking AOL's Grip".)  AOL subscribers
concerned at the thought of a corporation rifling through your mailbox,
picking and choosing what e-mail you'll receive and which web pages you'll
access, should also consider:  when it comes to simply delivering mail
reliably, AOL has a bad record.  At various times AOL has sporadically
refused to deliver mail from several other internet services, including
the Microsoft Network, FlexNet,,,, and


One December, AOL even stopped displaying thousands of web pages for over
ten days.  ( )

But AOL has affected the flow of online communication in other ways, too.
On December 24 the Washington Post reported that internet service
providers have been "bombarded with calls" from subscribers, most
complaining that after installing AOL's 5.0 software, "non-AOL Internet
software is disabled."  Beta-testers warned AOL about the problem, the
Post and other news outlets have noted -- but the warnings were apparently

Anger over the glitch proves noticeable numbers of AOL users now choose
non-AOL services for their net access.  Though AOL appears to have
disregarded them, the users show that thousands of internet services exist
for dissatisfied AOL subscribers, and that AOL doesn't have a monopoly on
delivering service to homes like the cable television companies that
deliver cable programming.

But has AOL discovered a way to change that?  A proposed merger with
Time-Warner grants AOL access to that company's cable system -- and some
observers fear other net services won't get the same access. Then only AOL
would be able to offer high-speed net access through the cable!  In his
most-recent Community Update, Steve Case gloated that the deal gives AOL
"an unprecedented ability to drive commerce" -- but besides exclusive
rights to lucrative advertising and sales money, AOL could also determine
what news and information is available.  One columnist suggested that the
real appeal of the merger "hinges on the ability to control both
customers' ability to access the Internet and what they see, hear and read
when they're online."

A variation on picking-and-choosing what subscribers receive will then
become a reality!  Senator Patrick Leahy warned that "we will have to look
closely at whether it makes public policy sense to consolidate control of
content, cable and Internet service distribution channels."  
( ) 
Even before AOL's proposed merger, Forbes magazine had suggested AOL as
"potential defendants" in a Department of Justice monopoly break-up. 
( ) 
Now Senator Leahy wants Americans to think about the future.  "At some
point, all of this concentration and convergence has implications for
consumers, because it will minimize competition and choice, giving us
fewer voices and fewer pipelines in the marketplace."

Ultimately the Senator cautions about the need to "make sure that all that
information does not become funneled and controlled by just two or three

Resistance to the merger is already building.  
( )  Ralph Nader's Consumer 
Project on Technology warns that "AT&T and Time-Warner are both trying 
to set up broad band internet services that can discriminate among content
providers, and effectively degrade services offered by competitors" 
( ) The European Union also
announced that they'll investigate the implications of the proposed deal,
and Canada's Ministry of Industry is already being urged to move against

Concerned netizens have a way to voice their concerns.  "People should
contact the agencies that will review the merger,"  the Consumer Project
on Technology's Jamie Love told AOL Watch.  "That will include the Federal
Communications Commission, as well as the Department of Justice or the
Federal Trade Commission."  There's also the ultimate protest:  
cancelling your service!  One celebrity is already seeking suggestions for
ways to replace his AOL account -- Michael Moore, director of "Roger and
Me." He explained his feelings on his personal web page.  "If just a few
people end up owning all the ways for us to communicate with each other,
and they decide what will be communicated and what won't, then we are all
in deep trouble."  ( ) Moore
notes that "The incredible beauty of this Internet is that you and I can
bypass all of them and talk to each other directly. They hate that!"

Fear of the new world order showed in dark humor circulating the internet.

One AOL Watch reader joked there might be consequences for cable viewers.  
"Attempting to switch channels will result in the message 'A request to
the host has taken longer than expected. If the problem persists...' "  
And at least one Time-Warner employee with an AOL account suggested to AOL
Watch that the deal has a bright side.  "Perhaps now I'll be able to stay
connected for more than three minutes without being cut off."

Even the technology editor for Salon -- an AOL content partner -- saw the
merger as a call to arms.  "AOL-Time Warner's interests are now aligned
opposite those of a freewheeling, independent Internet," their Managing
Editor wrote.  "So let's give 'em hell -- while we still can."
In fact, those who value the freedom of their speech over the interests of
corporations are already on the move.  Unidentified web users have already
claimed the domains and , and they've
even installed a pornography page at  (It's slogan is
"So sleazy, no wonder I'm number one.")  "Web Vengeance" software took it
further, using a parody doppelganger -- "America Offline" -- to illustrate 
a program letting users shoot bullet-holes into any web page.

AOL's unspoken desire to control all media may have met its match in
Georgia resident Christopher Alan.  He claimed the domain
-- then composed a rockabilly song about it and put it up at the URL.
        "When you bought Time-Warner we were all impressed.
         How come you didn't buy your web address?"

The bluesy guitar tune,

served as an important reminder -- that the internet houses millions of
individuals, each with their own uses for technology.  Alan's taunting
song reaffirms the hope that ultimately consumers will do what *they*
want... oblivious to what Steve Case wants.

	"You may be a big-shot down at AOL,
	 but I'm the one that got your URL!"


AOL is even having trouble providing users with access to their own
software.  An exit screen ad in September barked "We've got a new and
improved browser!" -- then told users to "Download now at Keyword:  "  
The ad's failure to provide an actual keyword made downloading impossible
-- and users who guessed keyword "browsers" were told that that keyword
didn't exist.

AOL's software then suggested users try keyword "brewers."

  David Cassel
  More Information -,3604,121553,00.html


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