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AOHell's Bells

A critic of America Online explains why the premiere online service is having a bad publicity month

By David Cassel

David Cassel is a freelance writer and critic of America Online. He compiled the list of frequently asked questions list for the newsgroup. He also maintains an archive of posts from and curates an FTP site of anti-AOL resources.

It's been a bad couple of weeks for Steve Case. Sure, Vanity Fair hailed the America Online chief executive as one of the info age's most influential figures. But then computer hackers went and stole his e-mail. And then the FBI raided the homes of 120 America Online members suspected of operating a kiddie porn ring on the computer network. All in all, for Case, September is shaping up to be a bad publicity month.

Case, who runs the largest of the mass-marketed online services (AOL, to geeks in the know), apparently thought he'd made some headway in his campaign against AOL-hating hackers. While AOL execs were sending each other congratulatory e-mails for neutering a hacker-made program ("AOHell") that, among other features, asks gullible chat room users to reveal their passwords, hackers crept into the mainframe computer and stole the very same front-office messages--an irony that must sting. Gleefully, the hackers posted the e-mail on the Internet, exposing the company's strategy against the hackers to be mostly legal threats and FBI intimidation, rather than technical fixes to AOL's buggy software. As one computer consultant pithily summed it up, "AOL's security sucks."

And those aren't the only crises dogging AOL. The hack attack followed on the heels of a class action suit filed by Palo Alto attorney Stephen Hagen, who told Newsweek that AOL had overbilled its users to the tune of $5 million last year. Why all the hostility toward AOL? AOL-bashers resent the company's arrogance, its censorship policies, its lax service, and its crass commercialism. Steve Case once refused to answer a reporter's technical question by joking, "Tell them it's magic." Annual reports show that AOL spent 10 times its R&D budget on marketing.

There's also the inevitable culture clash between longtime Internet users and the naive consumers ("ugly Americans," some Net vets sniff) that AOL funnels onto the Net. AOL marketers target new computer users. Last year, the company spent $37 million luring new customers, according to Forbes magazine. New modems and computers ship with AOL software; Bill Gates recently joked that he can't open a magazine without a shrink-wrapped AOL floppy disk falling into his lap. Result: Thousands of "newbies" rushing onto the Internet--using AOL's problematic software and lacking adequate preparation to observe the longstanding customs of Net courtesy.

Little surprise that the Internet is host to a bevy of sites warning new users away from AOL. There's the newsgroup and my own archive. There's a whole genre of AOL-bashing jokes on the Net ("How many AOLers does it take to screw in a light bulb?" "That feature will be supported in a future release after we figure out how to make it work with a mouse.")

Some AOL critics are more aggressive than others. One programmer bundled a credit card number generator to a point-and-click interface, creating the notorious "AOHell," an ingenious hack that exploits long-standing bugs in the AOL software. "If you're an anarchist, or just hate AOL and want to fuck them over. . ." its documentation begins. Despite all the hand wringing over AOHell, its powers are in fact over-hyped. For instance, the "Password fisher" is technically simple: It doesn't infiltrate any confidential administrative records; rather, it transmits a message to users in a chat room asking, "Send me your password NOW."

The cold and hot wars against AOL aren't likely to go away so long as Case and company continue to run roughshod over the online community. For example, stories of AOL's support staff misinforming AOL users are commonplace. I saw one staffer tell a user that he couldn't send e-mail to a competing online service because "they don't have Internet access."

AOL's disinformation can be even more calculated. For instance, AOL's online documentation describes the America Online Web browser as being "up to three times faster than any other browser." Maybe under perfect laboratory conditions. In reality, when using the browser software on AOL's system, users compete for responses from the mainframe in Virginia. "In a word," writes Ric Manning in the Louisville Courier Journal, AOL's Web browser "is a stinker." "It is as slow as molasses in winter," agrees Dave Tenant in July's Boardwatch magazine. Online journalist Robert Seidman reports that AOL's system reduces the quality of graphics in an effort to soup up performance.

Seidman also reported that AOL's e-mail had delays of more than four days. In online posts, many AOL users have been complaining that they're being billed for time spent in areas supposed to be free. Hagen, the Palo Alto lawyer behind the class action lawsuit, alleges the same thing and claims that AOL has engaged in rounding up users' online time, sometimes adding two extra minutes to the meter. Seidman reports that AOL went without fixing that problem for close to two years.

This month AOL bashers sent details of the lawsuit allegations to more than 500 AOLers; the AOL haters allege that AOL is "covering up" a billing scam and various other misdeeds. It's not as far-fetched a claim as it might sound. In his August letter to subscribers, AOL CEO Case suggested that AOL's methods of estimating session length were common in the industry--but neither CompuServe nor Prodigy does it that way.

Then there's AOL's censorship of posted messages. The lore includes the claim that AOL's PC cops once pulled a post to a Star Trek discussion group because the message contained the profanity, "Dammit, Jim, I'm a doctor."

Given the vigilance of AOL's PC cops, the FBI kiddie porn raid seems especially ironic. Though Case made it clear to reporters that AOL had brought the child porn problem to the attention of the authorities, critics have noted that AOL has been less successful at shutting down the pornographers. Of course, Internet-style adult chat areas--where much of the pornography has been traded--have always been a popular (and therefore lucrative) feature on AOL. As children's safety advocate Barry Crimmins told me on Monday, "You never see an obvious hacker [chat] room last long on AOL, but pedophile rooms often stay on the board for hours."

So maybe that wide-eyed kid on Time's "Cyberporn" cover wasn't looking at the Internet at all--but at an AOL chat room.

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