The AOL List: War of the Web

David Cassel (
Sat, 28 Dec 1996 00:43:11 -0800 (PST)

			W a r   o f   t h e   W e b


Two weeks ago AOL implemented a new web procedure that blocked millions of
their users from thousands of sites. 

The sites used HTML-compliant protocols, but AOL changed the way they were
handled December 14.  Days later a webmaster complained that a colleague
"has to downgrade his entire site for these ninnies... AOL has no
work-around at present." 

Ten days later, the situation persisted.  Hiway technologies issued a
press release headlined "AOL Flubs HTTP/1.1 Support".  In the crucial
pre-Christmas shopping week, AOL failed to address their incompatibility. 
"[T]he fact that we are in full compliance means nothing to the millions
of AOL users that are being denied access by their own provider," Hiway
technologies complained, announcing a work-around they'd created
specifically for AOL's browser. 

Within hours of the embarrassing press release, AOL fixed their problem. 
But hard feelings lingered from their original response--an error message
which specifically stated--incorrectly--that "This is an issue with the
Web site, and not with AOL."  The Apache web page displayed an AOL
executive's statement which implied that the action had been taken
deliberately:  "We wanted to stem the tide of those faults proliferating
and becoming a de facto standard by blocking them now."  As Apache saw it,
"we have a large company which is publicly snubbing consensus-developed
Internet standards".  (They added that AOL is a member of the W3
Consortium, the organization which arrived at the very standard AOL
unilaterally failed to recognize!) A user wrote AOL's "AOL Insider"
columnist, "Can you please tell someone at AOL to fix this?!?!?!" 

It couldn't have come at a worse time.  "A year ago, we did not have a
terrific Web experience..." Steve Case conceded recently to Tech Wire. 
"We had a mediocre browser and $3 an hour pricing."  But Case went on to
boast "We now think we're shipping the best Web experience..."  TechWire
named AOL "Company of the Year", but elsewhere, ranked the service #1 for
the top Web crash of 1996. 

Addressing the blocked sites, an AOL executive told C|Net Monday, "The
company is aware of the problem and is working to rectify it."  But
blissfully unaware, the AOL Insider continued to insist that "in this
case, the fault is not AOL's!"  Incorrectly calling the web page hardware
an "experimental version of a Web server that doesn't support the Web
protocol correctly," they told readers Wednesday "You can write the
Webmaster of the tell them there could potentially be 7+ million
more people seeing their site if they'd fix their problem. That'll light a

It lit a fire, all right...  "IMHO, AOL is guilty of slander," one poster
noted on Usenet.  The sys-op of a BBS in Atlanta commented, "They have
told more lies than all the presidents put together!"  This isn't the
first time AOL sidestepped blame.  Last year the 700-member "Undercover"
mailing list found that changes to AOL's mail client were preventing
mailing list posts from reaching AOL's users--and that AOL's staff were
blaming the mailing list operators. 

And it isn't AOL's first move against the Web community.  AOL is
encouraging fees on web sites run by their content providers--to make AOL
shine in comparison.  But there's no guarantee content providers will go
along with the scheme.  A spokesman for AOL's "Mom's Online"
area--featured prominently in AOL's television ads--told the AOL List, "As
I view the web as a critical distribution platform in our future, the
incentive AOL offers would have to be VERY compelling."  The daily
columnist for Yahoo! Internet Life cited one AOL one content provider who
estimated that under such an arrangement, half AOL's existing partners
would leave the service, but another told them AOL's Robert Pittman would
still start reviewing all the existing relationships at the end of

There are even more ominous signs.  "America Online Inc.'s move to push
its content providers to offer exclusive content may not only be another
ploy to strengthen its lead as the dominant online service," wrote
Internet Week, "but is another signal that AOL actually wants to be the
World Wide Web."  The deliberate vagueness of the company's tagline "AOL
is the internet," is only the first sign.  Boasting about AOL's
subscribers to Wired magazine, Ted Leonsis insisted "To these 6 million
homes, we are the Web."  Ironically, signing onto AOL tonight offered a
game that "lets you become part of the Borg Collective...and assimilate
every race in the universe, right on your desktop."  ("Click on the ORDER
button now, and your purchase will be conveniently billed to your AOL
account," the post ended.)

Even removing a page from a web site doesn't remove it from the AOL
universe.  Though the page may be gone, typing its URL into AOL's browser
returns the message "Please wait while that site is contacted." 
Persisting in the charade, the browser then announces "Transferring
bytes"--and then displays a file which no longer exists...except on AOL's
machines in Virginia. 

AOL stores copies of web pages to conceal the delays its service causes by
routing all requests through a chokepoint in Virginia--and users have no
way of knowing whether AOL has chosen to display a web page's current
version, or an old one.  A recent trial-run returned the old version from
AOL's cache for at least a half an hour...and there's no way around it. 
("Click here to RELOAD the current document," the browser offers
helpfully-- but rather than contacting the site, AOL simply re-displays
the old, cached version.)

This is an important caveat to AOL's claim of "fastest internet
experience".  ("Based on having the America Online computer at room
temperature and the Internet Service computer in a refrigerator," one user
quipped.) And it can only get worse as system crowding increases.  AOL
told the Washington Post they would promote the service less to improve
its capacity for current members--but TV ads are still urging users to
"Join today". 

In fact, Robert Pittman recently commented that AOL had underestimated
demand when they moved to flat-rate pricing.  "I wonder how they can make
money," the head of AT&T's Worldnet told the Wall Street Journal.  Indeed,
Bloomberg recently reported that, less than one month into flat-rate
pricing, AOL is now considering charging for parts of their service--which
suggests that AOL is, in fact, losing money off their current pricing. 

AOL's welcome screen have even begun heavily promoting their
pay-in-advance plan--and when TechWire asked Steve Case about ads in chat
rooms, Case responded, "That's something we'd consider." 

Meanwhile, life goes on AOL.  December 24 found a Christmas spam from
CyberPromotions--"have a wonderful holiday, and we'll see you soon, in an
e-mailbox near you!!" 


In celebration of the holidays, the webmaster at Green Bay Online created
a wreath made from AOL disks. (

"This is a 2.5 wreath," he told me.  "The 3.0 wreath is on my garage."

        David Cassel
        More Information -

 Please forward with subscription information and headers in-tact.

 To subscribe to this moderated list, send a message to MAJORDOMO@CLOUD9.NET
 containing the phrase SUBSCRIBE AOL-LIST in the message body. To unsubscribe