Online fascists battle intellectual freedom. Freedom 1, AOL 0. Steve Case as Oliver Cromwell minus charm. And brains. My fight for truth, justice and the other thing. Fun for the whole family.

AOL: Get Your Tricycle Off the Superhighway
Long the laughingstock of the high tech intelligensia, America On-Line (commonly abbreviated DOA) has truly outdone themselves since December 1996 in providing almost daily comedy for Internet users everywhere. Well, everywhere but on AOL, where the sorry-but-increasingly-upset multitudes could do little more than pound their keyboards in frustration as they received busy signal after busy signal. (Good news: No charge for busy signals!)

AOL claims 8 million users at the present moment, a number that’s probably dropped by a couple hundred since you finished this sentence. (There would have been more drops, but most of them couldn’t get through when they called AOL Customer Service.) Yet while AOL users continue to fling themselves like rats off a sinking ship at smaller Internet Service Providers (ISPs), CompuServe and the Microsoft Network, AOL remains bigger than any other on-line service. If this isn’t proof that there is absolutely no safety in numbers, good Lord, man, what kind of catastrophe is it going to take to convince you?

But it’s not like this latest series of blunders—grievous though they may be—has much to do with why so many of us think AOL is the pond scum of online service providers. From the start, AOL has been a widely known for puritanical censorship, slower than forever screen re-draws and a terrifically lame web browser. If anyone’s interested, I think their CEO, Steve Case, is a wanker, too.

Keystone Kops of Censorship
The stories of AOL censorship are the stuff of legend. No other group of 1990s-era pioneers has built a system which so closely approximates what free speech must have been like the Cold War Soviet Union. If you’ve not heard the examples before, you’ll think I’m kidding when you hear them from me, but I swear they’re true. (Non-believers should check out AOL Watch and AOL Sucks.) [UPDATE 4/12/04: The latter web site now redirects to the former and AOL Watch has not been updated in some time.]

A random sample:

  • A breast cancer survivor group is forced to setup a forum called “Hooter Cancer” because “breast” is a censored word.
  • A user has her account cancelled for typing “prick your finger” because “prick” was interpreted as a noun.
  • AOL bans the listing of any video with a title that included the words “pleasure,” “black,” “straight,” or “sex.”
  • Hispanic soccer fans are outraged when AOL tells them the Olympic soccer chat groups are “English only.”
  • AOL coded the keyword “fart” so that users hear a sound file announcing, “That’s inappropriate. We’re a family service.”

The list goes on, of course, because as a private service AOL reserves the right to force users to comply with its Terms of Service (TOS) regarding free speech, no matter how strangely puritanical it seems. Specifically, AOL’s TOS prohibit words or actions which “in AOL, Inc.’s sole opinion, restrict or inhibit other Members from…enjoying America Online.” We’ve all heard the saying about absolute power corrupting; AOL simply validates the hypothesis.

Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go
Censorship, however, is the tip of the iceberg. For example, it used to be that AOL members waited for minutes on end for their computers to download on-screen art. When AOL charged by the minute for time online, this devious maneuver keep users locked into paying for worthless online time. Now that there’s no per minutes charge, AOL has quite helpfully come up with software to bypass the on-screen art. Don’t think that wasn’t on purpose.

AOL also happily sells lists of subscribers to marketing companies. For-sale AOL subscriber info includes: “…name, gender, address, income, family, type of computer equipment, and payments to the company.” All the things you want miscellaneous corporations around the world to know about you.

Pity the poor companies that ran Tech Support forums on AOL. Not surprisingly, these services attracted many people to AOL because it was easy to get technical help regarding products, services and what have you. AOL gets customers, companies have a good tech support forum, and users have convenient access to knowledgeable tech support. This mutual backscratching worked quite well until very recently when Steve Case announced that henceforth AOL would charge companies $55,000 a year to run tech support forums. I believe his exact words were that this was “a great opportunity” for the companies involved. It’s a great something, but “opportunity” isn’t the word that comes to mind.

AOL has also made cancelling the service harder. For a brief period, you could e-mail your cancellation, but AOL was forced to stop the practice when it discovered far too many people made use of the feature. Now the only ways to cancel involve calling a seemingly always busy phone line or writing.

AOL CEO Steve Case: Wanker of the Year?
If it’s true that in the grand scheme of things—life, the universe, the history of the world—our individual knowledge amounts to less than one millionth of one percent of the totality of information out there, it’s a safe bet Steve Case doesn’t know half that much. Give him all the credit you want for starting a pseudo-successful national business, the man has the I.Q. of a salad bar. If brains were gasoline, he wouldn’t have enough to drive a dinky car around the inside of a Cheerio.

But don’t take my word for it. Here’s what Jesse Berst, the editorial director of ZDNet AnchorDesk, said about Steve: “I don’t get it! Case faces one explosive situation after another, yet won’t take the time to think his solutions through. He’s like a man sitting in a pool of gasoline who decides it would be a great time to light up a cigarette. I want to shout: Put the Bic down! Quit making an ash of yourself!”

First, Steve has AOL launch the most massive advertising campaign in the history of the online world. (Sidenote: Are these guys done carpet bombing the United States with those stinkin’ free disks? I have dozens, and that’s not counting the CDs they’ve sent me. I must have been Ghengis Khan in a past life to deserve treatment like this.) Then, on top of all the that, Steve switches AOL users from an hourly rate payment plan to an “unlimited” $19.95 rate plan (incurring the wrath of 44 state attorneys general along the way). Never mind the AOL is technologically incapable of supporting even close to this level of service. The man is unstoppable.

You see, while some people drink from the fountain of knowledge, Steve just gargles. (The extension of this metaphor makes AOL the backwash of Steve’s gargling, but let’s not pursue that further.) This lack of intellectual capital (which first manifest itself solely online censorship), now threatens to bring down the AOL empire. Read my lips: There is no way AOL can offer unlimited service and maintain 8 million happy subscribers. It is technologically impossible for them at this time, and it will remain impossible for the next two to three years.

Yeah, But…
Now I know what some of you are saying. You’re saying, “Yeah, but Ty, I have a 1950s sensibility so AOL’s censorship doesn’t really bother me. And, okay, Steve Case has the mental agility of a soap dish, but AOL is really working toward solving their problems, and if we just give them a little time, they will be able to fix everything.”

Ho, ho, ho…Have you been sold a bridge, or what? So AOL plans to spend $350 million in the next year to upgrade its network, right? Guess what? Even after the upgrade that means AOL can only serve 5 percent of its users at any given time! Five percent! So get rid of your Leave It To Beaver sensibilities, and get what the rest of us like to call “a clue.” We’ll be waiting for you in something we’ve termed “the real world,” and all you need to do to join us is get as far away from AOL as possible. ‘Cause you need AOL like you need another hole in your head.

(With apologies to my many otherwise brilliant friends who’ve been suckered into the slime pit of AOL.)

[Update of 2/6/98: Latest stats show AOL still has busy signals twice the rate of any other on-line service. At my own ISP, I’ve never had even one.]