"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 14 August 1996. Updated every WEEKDAY.

"You've got litigation!"


[AOL Sucks]

There's been a strange shift in

the power of the fourth estate.

The Wall Street Journal and

Newsday are contacting sources

from alt.aol-sucks, CNN is running

quotes from alt.aol-sucks, and

The Washington Post did a story

about alt.aol-sucks. The teenaged

author of the "Why AOL Sucks"

page is pontificating to the

L.A. Times about AOL's security

problems, and the newsgroup also

turns up in an Utne Reader story

(complete with Clifford Stoll quote),

and one by Time magazine's Philip

Elmer-DeWitt - who, true to

form, misspells the newsgroup's



[Cornell University]

The "Why AOL Sucks" author put

the page on his application to

Cornell. Nippon Telephone and

Telegraph contacted him for

advertising rates. And last

August, an attorney contacted

the 17-year-old to publicize his

class action lawsuit against the




By now everyone's heard the story -

vigilant California attorney

notices that, without telling

customers, AOL rounds any

session fraction longer than 45

seconds to two minutes.

(Prodigy, in comparison, tracks

every second of a session, then

rounds up one minute at the end

of the month.) Court documents

suggest overbilling each member

for three minutes a month would

constitute the entirety of AOL's

net income for 1994.


[Leonsis, Ted]

So who better to publicize the

suit than the way new web

criers? A grass-roots web

journalist's free newsletter

turns up in court documents -

the "Don Henley Must Die" issue

(Exhibit Nine). But even though

he pans the proposed settlement

("If AOL can't bill for actual

time or estimate fairly... it

ought to write it off as a cost

of doing business"), earlier

last month lawyers entered his

"alt.aol-sued" story supporting

their claim that publicity of

AOL's billing practices in and

of itself rectified the problem.

(Maybe next they should try to

sue AOL for sucking.) With

creative interpretative skills

available only to lawyers

anticipating a cushy settlement,

they presented the fruits of

their online browsing to the

court. "Apart from the media

coverage of the lawsuit, Steve

Case, the President of America

Online, addressed the billing

practices raised in the lawsuit

in a 'Steve Case Letter'". This

must be using the word

"addressed" in a very strict

legal sense (as in, Steve Case

sent it to the entire AOL

membership) - to our reading,

that letter was kind of

equivocal ("some members have

raised questions" which have

"led to rumors that allege we

are 'overcharging' for time

spent online...")


The settlement proposes that

former users who didn't intuit

the higher math be given a token

free hour on the system - if

they resubscribe. (Or is that

58:45?) They're also entitled to

$3.00 if their bill was over

$300, $6.00 for $600... but the

proposed settlement caps total

cash damages for all users at



Granted, it's difficult to

disagree with Exhibit One - the

Bay Area legal journal article

that begins "lawyers complaining

about overbilling may sound as

plausible as cops opining about

an overconsumption of

doughnuts..." We doubt that when

a San Francisco judge rules on

the proposed settlement in

September, the lawyers expect to

be paid in AOL dollars. But the

media lined up to dutifully

report the announcement of the

proposed settlement negotiated

on behalf of current and former

members - suddenly abandoning

their pundits in alt.aol-sucks.

"Who was the bonehead lawyer

that fucked us over on that

one?" "Maybe if we sit around

long enough they'll start doing

handstands or something and

offer a free hour AND A HALF!"

"My lawyer went to Virginia and

all I got was this lousy free




Lost in the equation is the fact

that everyone hates AOL. Not

just Declan McCullagh and the

editors of HotWired, but even AOL

content providers like Hecklers

Online and The Motley Fool. In

1995, a Danish magazine said

that the FAQ of the month came

from alt.aol-sucks months before

AOL had even announced the

launch of AOL Canada.

Coincidence? We think not.



Contrary to the suit's original

purpose, the proposed settlement

doesn't even require AOL to

change the way they bill users -

but only to publicize it better.

(We can picture the campaign now

- "More than any other online

service, at AOL, we know how

valuable your time is.") And to,

as court documents say,

"disclose the correct amount of

time for which the subscriber

will be charged" at the end of

each sesson. Which, as far as we

can tell, still doesn't occur.

The new software now displays an

"Are you sure you want to go?"

ad (before the final packet of

ads). But it doesn't display

billing information unless you

skip the Exit button and use the


open button instead.


In fact, "disaggregating" towards

an ad-supported model, AOL's

free time giveaways actually

increase the numbers on

(billable) advertisement hit

counts. AOL recently mailed

former members 15-free-hour

offers with no legal prodding




But dig deeper into the irony of

wiping the slate clean with time

on a service dropped by an

estimated three million

subscribers: The proposed terms

cover not just billing actions,

but also unrelated charges, such

as drawing unauthorized funds

from checking accounts, and

delays caused by AOL's software.

Since every ex-subscriber is a

member of the class represented

in the suit, AOL shields itself

from any future suits, binding

all former members to the

settlement terms unless they opt

out before August 23.


Within days of the announcement,

the editor of Boardwatch was

calling it "a royal rape," and a

petition went up at the

venerable aolsucks.org site. One

anticipates the arguments at the

public hearing in September:

"Free time on the service is not

only a proposed settlement term,

but a national joke, your

honor." But with the media's odd

silence on the settlement's

broad-based opposition, there's

an eerie calm before the August

23 filing date for objections.

The attorneys' fees stand at

$2.75 million dollars. And the

author of the "Why AOL Sucks"

page is packing for Cornell.


Who says there's no profits to be

made from online services?

courtesy of Destiny