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Turf Fight: AOL Hits the Internet

By Tom Geller

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Immigrants are streaming over the border, invading the greatest democracy humanity has ever known. They cross over to escape the confines of their land, where well-paid functionaries control what they see, how they talk, and with whom they associate. The tariffs are cruel, imposed both monthly and hourly, with surcharges for those seeking "special" services. Far from discouraging these fugitives, the border guards help them across, encouraging the immigrants to take advantage of the new land's resources and to become occasional citizens. For they know that the immigrants will return, taking those riches with them, leaving the unprotected democracy ravaged.

This story could be anti-immigrant campaign rhetoric in California or Texas, but it's not. To hear some speak of it, the above scenario represents the threat that members of the world's largest commercial online service, America Online, pose to the established Internet community. At the heart of the hysteria are the same fears jingoistic nortenos express when discussing immigration: that the new arrivals are of a lower quality than the established residents, that their presence will deplete the place's resources, and that immigrant culture will supplant the "native" one. But in both cases, anti-immigrant fears are unfounded, based on misunderstanding, chauvinism, and outright lies. And in both cases, there are casualties.

The Battleground

The flashpoint of the conflict is in Usenet newsgroups, the 10,000+ commonly-carried discussion groups that reflect special interests as diverse as needlepoint, bestiality and the music of John Denver. Newsgroups have been held up as the epitome of the democratic nature of the Internet for years now: anyone who has newsgroup access can broadcast their ideas in an uncut and unedited form in most newsgroups. These groups put enormous power of expression into the hands of millions of people worldwide, in a way that no other medium can match. Shortwave radio is a close analogy, but its methods of transmission are inefficient, and signals created by amateur enthusiasts are typically only heard by a few people. Similarly, the technology that promised to put a printing press in every home -- desktop publishing -- does not enable the common folk in the thornier matter of distribution.

To understand the conflict, it's necessary to know something about Usenet's history. As with many social phenomena, the system of newsgroups began as a tool for the elite and then democratized. The elite in this case were the computer professionals who use the powerful -- but arcane -- operating system "Unix." As Peter H. Salus relates in his new book, "Casting the Net: From ARPAnet to Internet and Beyond" (Addison-Wesley, $26.95), members of the Unix Users Group were quick to take advantage of the developments of the late 70s to help them transfer information between their far-flung educational and research institutions. The most significant of these developing technologies was "Unix to Unix Copy," or UUCP, written by Mike Lesk in 1976. UUCP was an important tool for sending e-mail but, more importantly, it created a "community" which traveled through wires, lived in supercomputers, and had real gatherings in non-physical sites: the birth of modern cyberspace.

In 1979, the first "news" program was written by Steve Bellovin at the University of North Carolina. He, Jim Ellis and Tom Truscott experimented with a link between U.N.C. and Duke University. They eventually called their new two-node network "USENET," after the name the Unix Users Group had just adopted, "USENIX." They programmed with the assumption that 1-2 messages would be exchanged per day.

Why did they figure on such a small load? At this time, remember, the best modems commercially available ran at 1200 bits per second (bps), with most working at 300 or even 110 bps. (The current standard is 14,400 bps or 28,800 bps.) 300 bps is about the same speed that you're reading this article: therefore, transmitting it would take more than half an hour. In addition, the modems themselves were buggy, and phone connections were less stable than they are today, built as they were solely for voice communications. Besides, Usenet was an experiment between like-minded researchers: who would want to send more than a couple of messages per day?

But, of course, people did. By mid-1981, the network had grown to over 100 sites, distributing 25 articles per day. Driven by the demand, data-transfer technologies improved, programmers developed more-robust newsreaders, and better protocols (such as NNTP, Network News Transfer Protocol) were introduced. By 1987, the first three newsgroups -- the inarguably technical net.general, net.v7bugs, and net.test -- had been joined by dozens of others, including such decidedly plebeian ones such as net.jokes, rec.food.veg, and net.rec.drugs.

Site administrators remembered how easily the original news program became overwhelmed with traffic, and power struggles ensued in deciding whether to keep these new groups from filling the Internet with "noise." As we know now, the recreational newsgroups remained, grew, and were joined by thousands of others. In the end, the people had stolen religion from the priests.

The Uneasy Peace

Much as the Internet -- and Internet newsgroups -- seems to be in a class by itself today, other networks and independent services have been operating in parallel with it for years. Almost all of these have been folded into what we call "The Internet," with gateways between the networks and services that make the distinction invisible to most users. This diversity is implied in the very name "Internet": it's an Interaction of Networks.

Widely distributed newsgroups were never the sole domain of the Internet, either. FIDONet, established in 1983 on programming by Tom Jennings, has long carried "newsgroups" between private bulletin boards which typically exchange articles, mail, and other information by phone in the middle of the night. And through BITNet, started in 1981, newsgroup-like mailing lists reached a high degree of sophistication.

At about the same time, several companies built nationwide bulletin board and chat systems which were, in essence, small phone networks connected to a central host. The Source (now defunct) and CompuServe were two of these early pioneers. I remember using CompuServe's "CB" (chat) function at a Radio Shack when I was about 15 years old: it was an amazing experience, to be taking part in a shared conversation with people spread throughout the country at a time when even speakerphones were rare. The effect was the same as if I were communicating through a network of computers, even if CompuServe isn't a network per se: the size of such a large service's audience makes it, socially, the same sort of controlled anarchy as the Internet.

One of these early services was America Online. Founded in 1985 as Quantum Computer Services, they provided online services to users of Commodore and Tandy computers through their QuantumLink (Q-Link) service. They went on to work with Apple to create AppleLink Personal Edition for its IIgs users in 1989, although disagreements in how the service should be marketed led to the partnership being disbanded. The service we now know as America Online began at around the same time, was run solely by Quantum, and targeted mostly Mac users. It was a huge success. Within three years, the membership had gone from zero to 200,000; Internet e-mail (launched in 1992), introduction of a Windows client (in January, 1993) and aggressive marketing techniques resulted in a growth spurt so phenomenal that it taxed their ability to handle the new users. By the end of 1993, AOL was well on its way to passing the million-member mark: it would cross that line in August of 1994..

Of course, Internet use had been growing as well during this time, and the newsgroups were at the center of this growth. In 1987 -- around the same time Quantum and Apple created AppleLink Personal Edition -- over 6,500 sites on the Internet carried Usenet news, with dozens of newsgroups and around 1,000 postings per day. By this time, site administrators had sounded the alarm that the volume was overwhelming the system and that, as in 1981, they were facing a crisis. One of them, Gene Spafford, wrote the following in 1985:

..there are a number of nasty problems associated with the current state of the Usenet. We have problems with signal: noise, transmission costs, transmission delays, naming space, etiquette, deciding what groups to carry, when to create and delete groups, etc., etc., etc. ..the net just has too much noise.

Later that year, he wrote:

Basically, the Usenet is dying. It has a had a long and fruitful life, especially considering how it came about and grew to its present form (not bad for some former shell files, eh?), but its lifetime is limited. Maybe Usenet has another year of functionality left. Maybe two at the outside.

As we now know, Mr. Spafford was wrong. Usenet (and the Internet) did what it's always done: it adapted to meet the growing desires of its users. Hardware got better, transmission speed and stability improved, programmers developed more efficient software, and people learned to cope with the ever-increasing flow of information. And then America Online introduced Usenet access.

The Opening Skirmish

The time was February 1994, and AOL was the upstart in a field dominated by Sears-owned Prodigy and H? Block-owned CompuServe. With over half a million members to its name, the independent Virginia-based company counted on its aggressive Internet strategy to catapult it ahead of its well-funded competitors. 1993 was the year that mainstream media realized that something big was happening, and made Internet their darling. "Traditional" commercial providers of Internet service -- most of whom has been in business for less than three years -- saw a tremendous boom. Everybody wanted to get on "The Net."

But for most people, Internet access remained elusive, tricky, and difficult to tame. Most ISPs (Internet Service Providers) offered only accounts through which one had to use the Unix "shell," meaning that members with little computer experience had to confront arcane commands like man, ph, and grep. Independent programmers made access more user-friendly, but most of their programs require certain types of accounts, such as those which support Point-to-Point Protocol (PPP), and in early 1994, those were few and far between.

When America Online expanded their access to Internet services, it gave people a compromise. They wouldn't have the same sort of access that full-fledged ISPs promised, but they could use the two most popular Internet services, mail and news, and the access would be stable, easy-to-use, and only a local phone call away. Some of the lesser-used utilities remained absent for another six months or more (FTP and mailing list directories) and, as of this writing, some still haven't arrived (finger and telnet). But their status as the first of the "big three" major online services to introduce Usenet news access won members who came to see AOL as -- in the words of their own advertising -- the "On-Ramp to the Information Superhighway."

So AOL members started posting messages to Usenet newsgroups -- again and again and again. A bug in AOL's news posting program caused each individual article to be posted redundantly seven times, effectively halting conversation in hundreds of newsgroups for millions of readers. Although a source inside AOL claims that the bug was corrected within hours and that messages were sent to kill the errant postings, it took a week before the mess cleared up. And by then, the damage had been done: AOL had gotten into the party by beating up the doorman.

To make matters worse, there were cultural clashes as well. David O'Donnell is the Manager of the Internet Feedback, Response, and Information Team, or IFRIT, for America Online. He says that the reaction started "almost immediately" after the service started offering newsgroup access to its members. "One of the very first posts made by an AOL member was something to the effect of "we're here," [in alt.best.of.internet] and I think that put a lot of people on the Internet into some degree of shock. They realized that, suddenly, one of the biggest online services, with hundreds of thousands of people, [had] access to this thing. Their academic community will never be the same."

The War of Propaganda

Flames against AOL members appeared throughout the net, and some sites prejudicially filtered out all articles which originated at America Online's signature domain, aol.com. Within months, a new newsgroup appeared: alt.aol-sux. According to David Cassel, who maintains an FTP site of anti-AOL documents (ftp://ftp.crl.com/users/ro/destiny/aol/), the description of the group in news.groups.reviews read:

"Originally started to flame users of America Online (AOL) about software bugs in AOL's Usenet reader, this newsgroup has evolved into a surprisingly high-level and thoughtful discussion.. This newsgroup provides a good glimpse into the evolution of the internet community as a whole, and where commercial on-line services fit in the scheme."

Indeed, early discussions were largely cogent and constructive. alt.aol-sux offered a forum for people to vent justifiable gripes about the online service, which by the end of 1994 was well on its way to having two million members. The postings included tales of egregious censorship, Internet resource "looting," inappropriate billing, unfair labor practices, software bugs, bad connections, low quality content, high rates, and ignorant customer support staff. These failings are described in minute detail on several sites throughout the Internet. Besides the aforementioned FTP site, there are four sets of World-Wide Web pages dedicated to AOL's shortcomings: one by James Egelhof at http://www.cloud9.net/~jegelhof/, another by Tom Finley at http://www.en.com/users/tfinley/aol-sux/aol-sux.html, one by Bill Yazji at http://www.itw.com:80/~byazji/aol.html and one by Tim Gerchmez at http://www.eskimo.com/~future/aolsux.htm.

Back in the newsgroups, the talk turned from criticizing AOL's service to flaming individual AOL members themselves. They were flamed on two fronts: firstly, because they were seen as stupid for using AOL; and secondly, for posting in ways that violated Usenet etiquette, or "Netiquette." The flashback against new users in general -- and AOL members in particular -- was so noticeable that AOL figured prominently in a thousand-word story in the April 21, 1994 USA Today about "Cyberspace Customs", while the New York Times attacked AOL administration in a front-page piece on electronic censorship on June 29, 1994.

A new sort of discrimination appeared: whereas inappropriate postings from educational (.edu) and organizational (.org) sites were only mildly flamed, even intelligent and appropriate ones from aol.com were lambasted. Steve Silberman, a writer who used information from the newsgroup rec.music.gdead extensively in preparing his latest book "Skeleton Key," pointed out that even in the mellow environment surrounding Grateful Dead fans, the hostility was evident. "The Grateful Dead community tends to be very supportive," he said. But he adds, "If someone posts a stupid thing who has an AOL address, the AOL address will be mentioned."

But besides the "well-intentioned ribbing" Silberman reports, the level of discourse frequently got plain mean, as a recent post to alt.aol-sux illustrates:

I don't want these losers with their little moderated teen chat rooms and parental control and fucked up screen names breakin' down the barrier between a screwed oppressive online service, and the internet, the only true democracy on earth! STAY OFF THE NET YOU FUCK FACES!

And this letter by Frank Wyland has become part of the anti-AOL canon as well, posted at Bill Yazji's World-Wide Web site:

..I, along with the world, are growing weary of all your worthless festering newbie net-garbage that seems to be floating around the net (especially in the ALT.SEX domain). Listen up troll: STAY OFF THE NET! ..If you had either a clue or a brain you wouldn't be on WOL (Wankers'OnLine). Spend your valuable time and hard-earned money elsewhere.. like buying keyboard skins, and anti-glare screens for your "spunk protection."

..You are suffering from the "Ten Free Hour Syndrome." I, along with many other net-vet's, know the tragic symptoms of this disorder. You probably [..suffer] from one or more of the following symptoms:

  1. MINDLESS CHAT: The second you throw that nicely colored WOL disk in, and are granted access you will head straight (no pun intended) for the Gay & Lesbian Chat Rooms. (I understand that YOU aren't Gay, but your boyfriend is.) Here you talk with fellow trolls and beg for dirty pix.
  2. INTENSE DOWNLOADING: When you first download that first picture of a guy with a 14 inch schlong being sucked off by a 2 year old you will eventually come to what YOU think WOL and the net are made for your personal gallery of naughty pictures. It is here where you try to find FTP sites for pictures and TXT files
  3. WANKING: You probably do this about 20 times a day, anyway.. but it gets worse as you read and see the merits of digitized porn. You will ruin keyboards, chairs, monitors, fur coats, your mothers hair, your brothers face, and you fathers bunghole..

Strangely, the newer to Internet access a user is, the more likely they are to post anti-AOL messages, believing it to be a sign of 'net "coolness." Many are undergraduate collegians, while some of the more vocal ones are in high school. And at the time he wrote it, the author of this epistle didn't even have Internet access.

Espionage and Subterfuge in the Trenches

To make matters worse, impostors started posting obnoxious messages and forging the signature headers to make them look as though they came from America Online. Typically, they would write parodies of what a new user might post -- with misspellings, grammatical errors, ALL CAPITAL LETTERS, inaccurate information and badly formed citations -- and watch the fur fly. When this failed to get a reaction, some would send articles to hundreds of newsgroups (called "spamming"), in direct violation of etiquette and the posting rules of most domains. At one point, various individuals masqueraded as the "AOL Alliance," and posted forged and purposely clumsy messages saying how great AOL was. While knowledgeable Usenet readers could tell that the posts were forgeries (by noting the path through which the post went), virtually everybody assumed that the posts really were from AOL -- and flamed the service further.

When Usenet complains about America Online, it's O'Donnell's three-member Response Team that gets the flak. IFRIT largely makes up the "public face" America Online shows the Internet, administering the hundreds of messages per day that are received by the mail accounts FTPMaster@aol.com, WWWMaster@aol.com, NewsMaster@aol.com, and so on, as well as fielding Internet-related messages which are forwarded from postmaster@aol.com. According to O'Donnell, the number of complaints from this later source is over 100 per day, but because "it's very rare that we only have one person complain about somebody," the number of individual reports of abuse sent to postmaster is closer to 65.

Ed Brundage, AOL's Assistant Usenet Administrator and part of the IFRIT, points to occasional retaliatory abuse against AOL administration by Usenet readers. According to him, some react to AOL members' "spam" (multiple, identical postings) by spamming the postmaster mailbox with complaint letters. "People will take all 50 messages and forward each one with a complaint at the top. It does get my attention. Actually, it gets me annoyed. But it does get my attention and [the offending news articles] do get canceled. As do the people who send me one message."

But not every complaint is valid. Before taking action, the Response Team confirms the violation by checking an internally generated log which shows every post AOL members make to Usenet. If the violation truly occurred as reported, a notice is sent to AOL's "police," the Terms of Service team, which takes action against the member. If the complaint was the result of a forged posting -- and remember, there are several of these every day -- the Response Team points that out to the complainant, and sends notice of the forgery to administrators at the forger's address, if known.

It's a monument to AOL's size that this daily log is over nine megabytes, with each article represented by one 160-character line. Extrapolating from that, the two-million-plus AOL members post over 50,000 articles per day, making the online service the most prolific site in the world by far. Tens of thousands of members are logged in to AOL at any given moment, posting at an estimated average of one article every two seconds. By comparison, my local full-service Internet provider carries approximately 100 members at a time, posting maybe a few hundred messages per day.

Making Peace

America Online is strict when dealing with members who violate Usenet etiquette -- stricter, in fact, than many "traditional" Internet service providers. If a Usenet reader complains about an AOL member who commits a minor faux pas -- posting news about lotteries in rec.pets, for example -- the member is sent an instructional letter from the Terms of Service team. This letter directs the member to read AOL's advisory texts on Usenet posting and warns that future transgressions may result in termination of the AOL account.

More serious abuses -- such as posting commercial advertisements or posting the same message to more than five newsgroups -- result in immediate termination, as does ignoring the first warning and continuing to draw complaints from the Internet community. An intermediate step, which is currently being implemented through a bit of AOL programming called "BanTool," keeps offending members from posting to the Usenet while allowing them to use all other parts of the service. As for the damage, the Response Team broadcasts a special message to Usenet which "cancels" the offending messages, causing them to be erased from the newsgroups.

Then, when the day is over, Brundage posts an official "Abuse Report from AOL" to the moderated newsgroup news.admin.net-abuse.announce. It lists those AOL addresses which incurred five or more instances of abuse and states that "..local action has been or is in the process of being taken against the poster[s]. All inappropriate articles have been canceled." The audience for this newsgroup and its corresponding discussion group (news.admin.net-abuse.misc) is mostly made up of system administrators, and they seem to be at peace, by and large, with AOL's management of its members. Back in the other groups, however, the battle rages on.

The Insistent Warriors

"Opinions expressed are mine, and mine alone. AOLers.. and other social undesirables may direct their insults, flames, pious speeches, self-righteous sermons, and otherwise inane, vomitous, dumb, and opinionated spew to alt.eat.my.shorts."
-- Signature seen on Usenet

It's clear that AOL has a public relations problem, and the tiny Response Team is powerless to solve it. The truth is, the corporation is entirely unfazed by flames directed at users. As one industry analyst said, "So what if Tom Finley [with his anti-AOL World-Wide Web pages] says that he's convinced forty people to leave AOL. Even if that's true -- and I don't think it is -- they're adding thousands of new members every month. They're going to hit two and a half million any minute now. Why should they care about losing forty members?"

No, it's not AOL that gets hurt by the flames: it's the users. While alt.aol-sux has created a desperately needed forum for criticism of AOL's weaknesses, it is instead filled with insults, unsubstantiated rumors, and innuendo. As a side note, it's worth mentioning that AOL is not the only service so pummeled on the 'net: Netcom, Delphi and CompuServe addresses get more than their shares of abuse from other domains. But America Online has been the most aggressive marketer of its peers, touted its Internet services the loudest, and offered its members virtually anonymous access for as long as its been on Usenet. These reasons, exacerbated by fears surrounding its increasing size, have made it the biggest target of the bunch.

But none of these reasons explains away the stubborn resentment toward AOL members. I'm reminded of a scene at the end of "The Last Battle," the final book of C.S. Lewis' series "The Chronicles of Narnia." In it, the world is drawing to its end, and all who remain are rushing to join Aslan in the perfect country beyond the end of the world. On their way, they come upon an angry knot of dwarves who are sitting close together in the sun, convinced that they are being held captive in a small, dark stable. One of the book's heroes tries to describe the glory that lies all around them:

"Can't you see? Look up! Look round! Can't you see the sky and the trees and the flowers? Can't you see me?"

"How in the name of Humbug can I see what ain't there? And how can I see you any more than you can see me in this pitch darkness?"

Just as no amount of argument could sway the dwarves, nothing AOL does to educate or punish its members seems to mollify its critics. Perhaps it's not worth trying to mollify them. In the book, the heroes leave the dwarves there in their imaginary darkness. The dwarves grumble as we leave them: "Well, at any rate there's no Humbug here. We haven't let anyone take us in. The Dwarves are for the Dwarves."


This page was last updated on Friday, January 06, 2012 at 12:17am UTC. All contents copyright 2005 by Tom Geller.