AOL Watch: Hackers, Netscape, Death of AOL?

David Cassel (
Fri, 2 Apr 1999 15:36:20 -0800

	 H a c k e r s,   N e t s c a p e,   D e a t h   o f   A O L ?


AOL finalized their acquisition of the browser company Netscape. And many
Netscape employees scrambled for the door.  "So many good people have left
by this point anyway," one Netscape staffer writes on their web page.  
"People who were with Netscape for 3 or 4 years..."

Did AOL's unpopularity precede them? "Three other people I know are
leaving within the month, regardless," the page continues.  "I don't think
any of them have jobs lined up or are even very interested in looking.  
Joe left last week without even waiting the week it would take him to get
the bonus check."

Steve Case had offered each of Netscape's 2300 employees an extra month's
pay to stay until the takeover was complete, according to Wired News.
("AOL's mainstream corporate bent has long made it akin to the antichrist
in the eyes of early Net users," the article notes, "scores of whom came
to work at Netscape in its youth.")

But though the disgruntled Netscape staffer remained, they created an
on-line diary -- "" -- chronicling low morale after AOL's
takeover.  ( ) Their site also
offered a series of answers to frequently-asked questions, titled "How
does it feel to wake up as an AOL employee?"

"It sucks, duh."

"I've been proud to work for Netscape, and I will never be proud to work
for AOL."

They linked that response to the "Why AOL Sucks" site. 
( )

Harsher criticism came yesterday from Netscape's Jamie Zawinski.  "This
buyout meant that Netscape's executives had finally given up."

In an on-line essay explaining his resignation from a high-profile project
overseeing code for the Mozilla browser, Zawinski too felt compelled to
link to the "Why AOL Sucks" page.

Elsewhere, he articulated his philosophical objections to AOL.  "AOL is
about centralization and control of content.  Everything that is good
about the Internet, everything that differentiates it from television, is
about empowerment of the individual.

"I don't want to be a part of an effort that could result in the
elimination of all that."

Some have resigned themselves to the inevitable.  At one recent function
at Netscape, visitors made dark jokes about not spilling drinks on AOL's
carpet.  But at least one Netscape employee captured their feelings with
an e-mail tag-line re-writing South Park's familiar refrain.

"Oh my God! They killed Netscape!"

There was just one question remaining when Steve Case made an appearance
at Netscape.  "After the deal closes, will you stop sending me disks?"

Steve Case answered evasively.  "Well, the thing is, I'm sure you have
neighbors, or friends, or family, who don't yet know about the power of
the Internet, and I think you'll want to share--"

"I think," Netscape's Jim Barksdale cut in, "his answer is no."

AOL began their reign by laying-off hundreds of workers -- a whopping 425
Netscape employees.  ( "You've Got Pink Slips," read one headline. )

But there may be more bad publicity ahead...

The Department of Labor has launched an inquiry into AOL's employment
practices, AOL Watch has learned.  Additional information came from an AOL
watchdog web page, which suggests the issue is the lack of wages paid to
on-line staffers.  Is AOL employing a force of strictly-controlled
volunteers, using AOL tools to perform the same integral work as paid

The page includes contact information for a Department of Labor officer --
and even a case number.  Reached for comment, a Department of Labor
officer added only "If we have an open investigation, I am not allowed to
talk to the reporters."  But they acknowledged an awareness of the page's

But AOL's contact with the federal government doesn't end there. "AOL is
flexing its muscle in the political world," one MSNBC article noted in
November -- citing an "ambitious lobbying campaign" which is just "one
piece of a multi-pronged effort by AOL to increase its influence on the
government's decision-making process.",4586,2167455,00.html

AOL appears concerned they'll be replaced by high-speed cable internet
access -- and they've been aggressively lobbying with other companies for
a place in cable offerings.  In February, however, C|Net reported that
"Internet service providers were dealt a blow...when the FCC decided to
postpone any decision on whether ISPs had the right to lease access on
cable companies' pipes...",4,31930,00.html

Meanwhile, AOL's position drew sharp ridicule from the "Frontiers of
Freedom"  -- a non-profit organization founded by former U.S. Senator
Malcolm Wallop.  "AOL is now calling for the heavy hand of government to
stifle competitors and to regulate access to the internet," the group's
web site complains.  "[H]aving made a bad business decision to sell its
own network, AOL has no business inviting government to hamstring
competitors -- who have developed a superior product that's 50 to 100
times faster than AOL's -- by regulating them."

The criticisms are withering.  "While they fight Internet censorship (even
going to bat for the free speech rights of a pro-Klan group), they were
less tolerant of a website entitled,," the organization
notes.  "That one hit too too close for comfort..."  the page continues --
apparently referring to the incident detailed at

But more withering comments were submitted by readers.  

    "Come on AOL, stop wasting money on government lobbyists and put your
     money into building a better product."

    "If this is the way we want to do things in this country, then I'm
     going to start a whale oil lamp company and sue the local electricity
     companies for putting me out of business; it makes as much sense."

     "The pure unmitigated gall of Steve Case is unbelievable."

The site may be bad news for AOL.  It offers visitors the ability to
easily contact relevant FCC and Congressional officials on-line.  ("We'll
make sure your e-mail is delivered, and your strong beliefs are heard.")

AOL has made light of their own drive for dominance.  "We think it would
be good if the IRS would, on your tax form, just have a checkoff box, 'Do
you currently subscribe to AOL,'" Steve Case joked at the National Press
Club in March of 1996, "and if you don't, we'll send you the disk and we
can eliminate a lot of duplication and waste."

But the reality is less jovial.  AOL recently filed legal attacks against
AT&T's "WorldNet" service -- for using the phrase "You have mail."  AOL's
request to block use of that phrase -- along with the phrases "Buddy List"
and "Instant Message" -- was rejected by a Federal District Court Judge in
early January.  "The AOL lawsuit provides a glimpse into a Web future
where lawyers chase ambulances in cyberspace," observed Roger Ebert this
month in his Yahoo! Internet Life column.

AOL's behavior suggests a philosophical danger.  "We're pleased that Judge
Hilton has rejected this attempt by AOL to appropriate common Internet
terms for its own exclusive use," AT&T's counsel announced in a
statement.  But he added that "we feel this sort of overreaching by one
company raises serious concerns about whether AOL is truly committed to
keeping the Internet an open platform, or whether it intends to leverage
its dominance to make the Net more proprietary.",1193,262,00.html,4,30479,00.html

Strangely, the Wall Street Journal had reported last Friday that AOL was
"winning respect across Silicon Valley." But that same day, the Associated
Press reported a high school drop-out broke into AOL's mainframe.

And hours later, an AOL account was fingered as the original distributor
of the Melissa virus.  Described as "the most widespread computer virus
ever seen," both Reuters and the Associated Press published the AOL
screen name to which it was eventually linked.  The account's member
profile connected the name to a 37-year-old civil engineer in Lynnwood,
Washington -- who says the virus-distributor had stolen access to his
account. "I am a little jarred about the lack of security that AOL has in
place," the engineer told C|Net, "and am now going to close my AOL

Ironically, pulling up his account's profile Tuesday displayed an AOL
banner ad advising, "Send your love on-line."

Today the Associated Press reported the virus's originator was "snared
with the help of technicians at America Online, and a computer task force
of federal and state agents."

"This is why my aunt can't get through to AOL's tech support," one user
joked on an on-line bulletin board.  "They're all busy chasing virus
writers! :) "

It's not the first AOL-related incident.  VicodinES, whose work may have
assisted the virus's true creator, brags about creating an earlier virus
disguised as an AOL anti-crash patch, according to Ziff-Davis News.  And
AOL "Trojan Horses" are nothing new.  MSNBC reported on the picture.exe
password-stealer in January.,4586,2235046,00.html

But security problems ultimately affect AOL's business operations. In
October, the Associated Press reported that a 21-year-old hacked into
AOL's call-center server in Ogden to send a threatening instant message.
("We are sick of your censorship and bad service," it began...)

AOL has actually drawn continuing criticism for their technical
shortcomings.  Wired News reported AOL only began testing their components
for year-2000 glitches in January.  While that may have been soon enough,
a "Y2K" consultant warned the news outlet that "if it turns out they do
have compliance problems, there's no time left at this point."

In fact, outages are one of AOL's ongoing expectations.  "I would like to
be able to tell you that this sort of thing will never happen again,"
Steve Case commented in 1996 after a 19-hour nationwide outage, "but
frankly, I can't make that commitment."

Ultimately the latest problems may represent business as usual in AOL's
hacker-friendly environment.  In 1995 hackers stole Steve Case's e-mail.  
In 1996 the Washington Post reported AOL cancelled 370,000 accounts in one
three-month period for "credit card fraud, hacking, etc." (9/16/96.)  And
by 1998, hackers had hit at least 34 AOL areas -- including the highlights
for Steve Case's monthly updated.  (It's title bar changed to "Hey there

AOL's hacker community may even have its roots in AOL's history.  Until
September of 1995, AOL didn't confirm the authenticity of credit card
information submitted for free-trial accounts.  The 370,000 cancelled
accounts the next Spring may indicate how entrenched the hacker population
had become.

But when AOL's on-line staff questioned lax policies, AOL Vice President
Kathy Ryan showed indifference.  One on-line gathering was told, "we
understand that our aggressive distribution of both software and
certificates can result in 'throwaway' accounts.  We have made the
business decision that the benefits in this case outweigh the

In those crucial early months, AOL remained silent on the dangers of
"password-thieves."  (Password-fishing con artists who turned access to
one AOL account into unauthorized access to several others.)  Terms of
Service staffer Chip Douglas ultimately explained AOL's dilemma --
marketing over security -- to another on-line gathering.  "Many times we
(AOL) are caught between a rock and a hard place debating over the
importance of our 'community' while still trying to be as open to new
members as possible, and NOT scare them away with needless (?)  warnings
about PW scammers, etc."

Later that year, Steve Case made his first public acknowledgment of the
problem -- and Netscape's Security Documentation Manager forwarded the
entire letter to the Cypherpunks mailing list.  "Looks like AOL is being
dragged, kicking and screaming, into the world of security," he crowed.

But now Netscape is being dragged into the world of AOL.

The "Doom@Netscape" site answers the question "What are you going to do
now?"  by saying "Wait and see what happens.  What else can I do?"

That employee got an answer Wednesday.  They were laid off.


Staffers at Netscape's "NetCenter" may have gotten the last laugh. Last
week their site offered two news headlines -- one announcing "AOL Cuts
Jobs at Netscape."

The second may have voiced related concerns.  "Working for an idiot?" it
read.  "Do something about it!"

  David Cassel
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