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[whitespace] Illustration Learning From AOL

By Annalee Newitz

AOL IS THE Las Vegas of the Internet. It sucks you in with free offers, treats you to an expensive and mostly hideous buffet of membership options, then manipulates you into submission with glittering, 24-hour hell caverns throbbing with consumer addictions. And just as Las Vegas continues to influence every aspect of American pop culture, from musical productions to shopping malls, so too does AOL influence the online world.

The main lesson that online companies have learned from AOL is this: Give away free stuff and then treat your customers like shit. First, you get the suckers addicted to your services to the point where they reveal their personal information to you; then you sell that information to as many advertisers as you can. Make sure users are buried in spam, too. And for good measure, you might want to spy on them or possibly convert their CPUs into your own personal data-crunching slaves.

My bitterness about this right now is aimed at three previously esteemed entities: Yahoo!, Morpheus and KaZaA. OK, Yahoo! has sucked for a while, but its recent shenanigans represent a considerable suckage upgrade. Over the past two weeks, Yahoo! has sneakily begun a process that will allow it to "share" members' information (even their phone numbers!) with spammers; at the same time, Yahoo! suddenly began charging customers who use POP to download email from their accounts. Yahoo! reps are mum on how much cash they expect to rake in with these new policies, but users are happy to share their rage. Nearly every email list I'm on has seen a spike in "Yahoo! Is Evil" threads.

The worst part about Yahoo!'s new spam policy--euphemistically called "marketing preferences"--is that Yahoo! gets your so-called permission to spam you by default. A buried menu in your user profile asks whether you'd like to receive email or phone alerts about products, specials or whatever, and lists about a dozen possible spam topic areas. Each topic is checked "yes" unless you change it. Of course, even if you do check "no," as a Yahoo! rep pointed out to me, "There is no way for users to keep Yahoo! from sharing information with partners. They can just stipulate they don't want to receive information from them."

And thus another decent, free email service goes down the drain. Damn, isn't it enough that Yahoo! users have been subjected to zillions of pop-under ads for wireless spycams over the past couple months? No, it's the AOL way: a boot in the user's face forever.

Speaking of abuse and spies, let us consider the even more brutal crimes against netizenry perpetrated by former renegade file-sharing-for-the-people software KaZaA and Morpheus. Both types of software had come to dominate the furtive world of pseudolegal file-trading online in the wake of Napster's demise. Last week, Brilliant Digital announced proudly that a partnership with KaZaA's parent company allowed them to bundle KaZaA with what C|Net reporter John Borland accurately dubs "a stealth P2P network." If you've downloaded KaZaA recently, you've also unwittingly downloaded Altnet Secureinstall--software that lets Brilliant use your computer as a node in a peer-to-peer network that serves up ads and files for partner companies or crunches data for them.

Installing KaZaA will turn your computer's memory and processor into a corporate slave. And yet, more than 2 million people downloaded KaZaA from download.com last week. What's depressing about all this--aside from a shockingly overt form of consumer mistreatment--is that P2P networks were once hailed by digital freedom lovers as the ultimate democratizing tools, harnessing the power of thousands of personal computers to accomplish humanitarian tasks (like [email protected] and the protein structure project) or to share information in communities.

In another outrageous act of P2P betrayal, Morpheus' new Preview Edition installs spyware on your computer that tracks the websites you visit and secretly feeds the information back to StreamCast, the company that owns Morpheus. Can it get more disgusting? Yes--Morpheus PE is based on free software file-sharing technology called Gnutella. StreamCast is using our own beloved free software to screw us.

If you want to clean all this crap off your computer, try downloading a program called AdAware, which defeats Morpheus' spyware. And if you type "uninstall Brilliant Digital's software" into Google, you'll find an article by Borland on how to get rid of KaZaA's P2P slaveware. As for combating the rampant AOL-ization of everything--stay on target. Keep hacking--for great justice.

Annalee Newitz ([email protected]) is a surly media nerd who eats your spyware for breakfast.

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From the April 11-17, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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