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AOL vs Gays
AOL vs. Gays

Further Reading
Who Dunnit
The former Jean Villaneuva, who became Steve Case's second wife four years ago, graduated from Westminster...
In bed together
The former Jean Villaneuva, who became Steve Case's second wife four years ago, graduated from Westmins...

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January 2001 Email this to a friend
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AOL vs. Gays
Why the world's biggest media firm is no friend
By Jim D'Entremont

When Gay.com reported that the wife of cyberspace potentate Steve Case had given $8.35 million to Westminster Academy, a Christian private school attached to Rev. D. James Kennedy's rabidly homophobic Coral Ridge Ministries, thousands of gay subscribers to America Online (AOL), the source of the Cases' fortune, went into orbit.

The story broke on October 18. Responses ranged from cautious letters of protest to passionate calls for a boycott. In Boston, AOL member Jerry Van Nostrand launched a campaign to declare January 1, 2001 National Gay Cancel AOL Day. Jean Case's generosity to Westminster, where she completed high school in 1978, fueled long-standing suspicions that beneath the superficially gay-friendly surface of AOL lurks an anti-gay hostility grounded in right-wing politics.

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But there are better reasons to avoid America Online. Its impending merger with Time Warner will create, in the words of media analyst Ben Bagdikian, "a communications cartel of a magnitude and power the world has never seen before." The $111 billion deal-- the largest merger in history-- will have an incalculably negative impact on consumers' freedom of choice, as it diminishes freedom of expression. On December 14, the Federal Trade Commission has given this antidemocratic maneuver a green light; the Federal Communications Commission is expected to follow suit.

Leaving aside the specter of AOL Time Warner, Internet expert Seth Finkelstein suggests that America Online's persistence in foisting an inferior product on the public, its well-documented contempt for its customers, and its destructive role in the marketplace add up to far more compelling reasons for an AOL boycott than its real or imagined embrace of reactionary politics.

"Boycott AOL because it's a shoddy service and a poor ISP," says Finkelstein. "In fact, don't 'boycott' it, because that implies it would somehow be desirable to purchase it. Rather, don't have anything to do with it on the strictly value-oriented basis that it's not worth buying in the first place."

Cyberspace in swaddling

AOL, which combines characteristics of a computer bulletin board and an Internet service provider (ISP), has been called "the Internet on training wheels." Its installation into home computers is practically idiot-proof; its format is navigable by online novices. Emphasizing graphics rather than text, AOL's display screens provide comforting, vanilla-flavored fast food for the eyes. With operations extending from France to Japan, the service is almost globally available.

According to the company's most recent annual report, its total revenues for fiscal 2000 approached $7 billion. Its subscribers, whose monthly fees provided nearly two-thirds of those revenues, passed the 25 million mark in October. An additional 2.8 million members of Compuserve, an ex-rival AOL ingested in 1998, are feudally connected to AOL. Users of Netscape, which AOL acquired last year, are provided with AOL's instant messaging service and other perks (plus sales pitches to join AOL). At any given moment, there are throngs of temporary members poking around in AOL via free introductory software. Gay customers have at times made up 30 percent of AOL's membership.

AOL's style of operation is a constant reminder that CEO Steve Case's field is marketing, not computer systems. A 1980 political science graduate of Williams College, the 42-year-old Case has a limited grasp of the technology he promotes. His résumé includes a stint as a brand manager for Pizza Hut. In the 1980s, he served as marketing manager at Control Video Corporation, a video game company, whose involvement in an online service for Commodore users led to the creation in 1985 of the Q-Link dial-up network, which by 1989 evolved into America Online. From the beginning, AOL's principal strength has been self-promotion.

"The deep problem with AOL," according to Finkelstein, "is that it's oriented to getting accounts by any means necessary. So it's a haven for scammers, spammers, fraudsters, and fly-by-night operators."

AOL's most notorious ploy (Finkelstein calls it "marketing carpet-bombing") has been the mass distribution of introductory diskettes and CD-ROMs designed to get people hooked. In the '90s, millions of diskettes offering ever-increasing amounts of free time on AOL were direct-mailed to households across the country, while millions more were inserted into magazines, packaged with frozen steaks, and tossed to the crowds at high-profile public events. Mass-distributed promotional CD-ROMs are now offering the latest update, AOL 6.0.

The curious who pop AOL start-up software into their computers without reading the fine print are often under the impression that the service will end once they use up the specified free hours or delete AOL from their hard disks. Many people discover that they've unwittingly subscribed to AOL when charges appear on their credit card bills.

The only way to cancel a subscription to AOL-- trial or otherwise-- is to call company headquarters in Dulles, Virginia. The wait to connect with AOL Customer Service is not as off-putting as it was four or five years ago-- when it could take 45 minutes to get through to something resembling a human being-- but it still requires patience. Once connected, subscribers are at the mercy of employees who have been offered a bonus for every customer they dissuade from leaving AOL.

AOL representatives often "use deceptive tactics or blatantly lie" in order to talk people out of terminating, according to an investigative report by Robin Washington in the Boston Herald July 3. Tales of continued billing after cancellation abound. AOL's handling of cancellation requests violates a 1997 pledge the company made to 44 state attorneys general that it would stop obstructing customers' efforts to extricate themselves. Last June, Oakland, California, attorney Ken Richardson filed a class-action suit on behalf of members charging that AOL failed to comply with their requests for termination.

Your eyeballs for sale

Those who stick with AOL inhabit an environment where information is dumbed down, punched up, and relentlessly hooked into selling. Amid AOL's weather forecasts, stock reports, horoscopes, soundbite news, and shards of celebrity gossip, the service is permeated with retail come-ons that appear in marginal notes, links, and pop-up screens. Six months ago, some customers filed suit in Florida seeking restitution for the amount of time AOL was forcing them to spend to look at ads.

AOL's bloated, buggy software causes problems on customers' PCs and can make getting online a chancy proposition. "It fills up your computer with trash," says one disgruntled former member. "It's like an infestation of roaches. It sends garbage to the farthest corners of your hard disk. Deleting the stuff is a challenge." During busy periods, AOL customers have had difficulty getting online or sustaining a connection. On August 7, 1996, a central system failure caused a now-legendary 19-hour service outage.

But AOL remains the online service of choice for hordes of consumers, including several million gay men and lesbians. "The GLBT community," says New York gay activist Bill Dobbs, "needs to ask why it has delivered itself lock, stock, and credit card to AOL."

John, a gay theatrical lighting designer who travels frequently, says he clings to AOL for convenience in collecting e-mail in cities across the US and Europe. Alex, a frequent traveler who divides his time between the US mainland and Hawaii, retains AOL for similar reasons. But e-mail services of equal or superior reliability, accessible worldwide, are available, sometimes for free, at Yahoo and elsewhere.

For gay men, AOL's chat rooms are a major attraction. While they can focus on anything from stamp collecting to breast cancer, most of the scores of member-created chat rooms are gay-themed and overtly sexual. Among them are "m4m cyber," an easy source of virtual jerk-off buddies. Chat rooms focused on major cities-- New York, Miami, Houston, or San Francisco "m4m"-- offer the possibility of sexual hookups without the necessity of getting dressed and accessorized, and going out to clubs or baths. Tom, a 50-year-old arts administrator, says he's met more than a hundred sex dates-- and his present monogamous partner-- via AOL chat.

AOL's Instant Messaging system (AIM) allows its 65 million users-- mostly AOL or Netscape customers-- to make direct contact in real time, outside chat rooms. For sex cruisers, this can mean ease in making dates, following up on promising chat-room contacts, or introducing themselves to intriguing prospects after checking out their AOL Member Profiles. But under AOL's tight-fisted proprietorship, AIM is a closed system-- it's as if AT&T's long-distance customers couldn't call people who used Sprint. AOL's efforts to block compatibility with rival instant messagers have caused Microsoft, Altavista, iCast, and others to complain to the FCC and call for Congressional intervention.

Apart from chat features, most of the gay-specific material obtainable through AOL is provided by PlanetOut, a separate, gay-themed Internet portal in which AOL is a major investor. The two companies have jointly released promotional starter diskettes. PlanetOut's impending merger with Gay.com (see box) will bring into the AOL fold the competing gay online service that first sounded the alarm about Jean Case's donation to an enclave of bigots.


While PlanetOut retains its independence and maintains relationships with AOL rivals such as Microsoft Network (MSN) and Yahoo, many observers find its connection to AOL troubling. Some suspect PlanetOut acts as a buffer zone when AOL does anything disturbing to gay people. PlanetOut did indeed give some limited coverage to the Case donation to Westminster Academy, but its reportage seems to have stopped with Jean and Steve Case's bland official replies to their critics.

AOL's stake in PlanetOut is, anyway, strictly business. Its corporate largesse to the gay community has not extended much beyond partial, promotional sponsorship of the annual dinner of the conservative Human Rights Campaign and last April's Millennium March. Gay.com's Michelangelo Signorile examined tax returns of both the AOL Foundation and the Case Foundation, a $125 million endowment set up to serve the Cases' personal charities. "I could not find a dime that had gone to a gay organization of any kind," Signorile reports.

Jean Case's donation to Westminster Academy, her alma mater, was a personal gesture made about a year ago, when her husband made a similar gift to a school in Hawaii he once attended. While neither gift was administered by the Case Foundation, Signorile and others point out that the typically right-wing objects of its generosity have included the stridently anti-gay McLean Bible Church in McLean, Virginia, and the more temperately anti-gay Billy Graham Evangelical Society. In 1998, a gift of $550,000 to Westminster Academy came from the Case Foundation directly.

Please watch your thoughts

When it reaches out philanthropically, AOL makes choices that are decidedly conservative. The company aims to create a similar ambience for its customers. AOL's fuzzy, capricious Terms of Service (TOS) guidelines allow their corporate enforcers considerable leeway in deciding which member-created web sites, postings, or conversations to censor. Members often don't know they've committed a violation until they're informed. In one notorious incident, AOL suppressed a member's PG-rated poem because it contained the word breast.

While AOL is reluctant to make its vulgarity guidelines public, some versions have leaked out. A 1996 training-session transcript obtained by online journalist Jordanne Holyoak reveals that words proscribed by AOL as "unconditionally vulgar" have included blowjob, clitoris, cock, cocksucker, cornhole, cunnilingus, cunt, fellatio, feltching, fuck, kike, masturbation, motherfucker, nigger, rimjob, sodomy, shit, spic, tit, and twat. Words and phrases listed as "conditionally vulgar"-- not necessarily warranting a warning-- have included ass, bitch, Butthead, Cornholio, crap, douche, cum, defecation, dyke, faggot, fag, fart, genitalia, go to hell, horny, homo, penis, piss, pussy, queer, sadomasochism, slut/whore/ho, urination, vagina, and whips and chains. Defecation, genitalia, penis, semen, urination, vagina, and douche have always been acceptable at AOL-- in medical contexts.

AOL's recent eradication of the web site providing an online edition of the Triangle Journal News (TJN), a decorous gay monthly based in Memphis, Tennessee, came as a surprise to the newspaper's staff. The offending material seems to have been a phone-sex ad that contained no frontal nudity, but AOL refuses to discuss the nature of the supposed TOS violation. "What I tried to get from AOL was some specific information about the problem," says TJN publisher Allen Cook, "but their policy is not to give you a reason, because that gives you a recourse. Basically, if they don't like you, they can throw you out." Cook has accordingly moved the web site to another ISP.

The tactic is not reserved for run-ins with gay members; in 1999, for example, AOL refused to state why it shut down CopCrimes, a site exposing police brutality. The watchdog Online Policy Group is, however, trying to determine whether or not AOL censors gay members' web sites more frequently than others. Anecdotal evidence suggests that it does.

AOL and other online services claim they censor mainly in the interest of child protection. In fact, their censorship practices are clumsy balancing acts that weigh adult customers' expectations against the threat of government intervention. At AOL, multiple levels of filter controls allow parents to delegate to AOL decisions about what is suitable for their children, young teens, or older adolescents. Some customization is possible, but parents are handed little information about what is being blocked-- or permitted-- by AOL's filtering. It does appear that AOL's censorware keeps most gay-related material, sexual or not, away from youngsters.

In chat areas and message boards, patrolling AOL "guides" spot-check for indecency. Given the impossibility of monitoring the speech of about 25 million people, the guides are not the presence they once were. AOL members themselves are encouraged to report suspected TOS infractions. Usually, in gay chat rooms, one can say "fuck" with impunity. But names of chat rooms retain an etiquette of euphemism; rooms with names like "buttfuck m4m" or "circlejerk" are verboten, as are monikers suggesting incest or boy-love. During AOL's first few years of operation, chat room titles including the word gay were forbidden.

Porn photos can be discreetly traded in AOL's public member-created rooms or e-mailed among members; circulation of illegal porn, when it occurs, is probably confined to private member-created chat areas-- some of which are maintained by law enforcement. In 1995 the FBI launched a sting it dubbed "Operation Innocent Images" and seized the computers of 125 AOL members around the US for suspected trafficking in sexually explicit images of minors. AOL's facilitation of entrapment schemes sent a chill through much of its membership.

If you're on AOL, you're being watched. The kinds of penalties that the US Postal Service would incur for mail-tampering or violations of first-class mail privacy don't apply to privately-run services like AOL. Despite assurances that members' privacy is paramount, the company has demonstrated an eagerness to share information about its members not only with investigators and law enforcement-- with or without a warrant-- but with advertisers as well. David Cassel of AOL Watch alleges that AOL sells junk mailers lists of members categorized by records of their online interests.

Among AOL's most egregious privacy violations was a 1997 incident in which Naval officer Timothy R. McVeigh fell afoul of the US military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy because of AOL's willingness to verify his identity. (See The Guide, February 1998.) When a Navy wife and fellow AOL member became suspicious of McVeigh's screen name, "Boysrch," she looked up his Member Profile, in which he described himself as "gay" and said his interests included "boy-watching" and "collecting pictures of other young studs." She reported the information to Naval authorities. When a Navy investigator called AOL's Tech Services, an employee quickly verified that the screen name belonged to McVeigh.

Enclosing the commons

In subscribing to AOL, McVeigh may not have realized he was entering a virtual mega-mart, a vast but circumscribed private space whose owners are the arbiters of customers' behavior. AOL is a space where censorship enjoys First Amendment protection, and personal information is insecure.

"What used to be Main Street is now the shopping mall," observes Bill Dobbs. "On old-fashioned Main Street, you could hang out with your friends, smoke pot until the cops came, protest, petition, or just sit there, without having to set foot inside a store. Now what used to be public space is private property where everything is sanitized, restricted, and kept under surveillance. The major purpose of the space is commerce. You're there to buy."

In January 2000, AOL announced its intention to expand its dominion by merging with Time Warner, the largest media conglomerate in the world. The news shook Wall Street and computer users everywhere.

The appeal of such a move to AOL lay in the safety of acquiring sturdier assets at a time when the Internet boom had peaked. Time Warner's holdings include the 12.6-million-subscriber Time Warner Cable; HBO, Cinemax, and CNN; Warner Bros. Pictures, Warner Bros. Television, Warner Home Video, New Line Cinema, Looney Tunes, and Hanna-Barbera Productions; Atlantic, Elektra, Rhino, Sire, and Warner Bros. records; DC Comics; MAD Magazine; the Atlanta Braves, the Atlanta Hawks, the Atlanta Thrashers, and World Championship Wrestling; Time-Life Books, Warner Books, Little Brown and Company, and Book-of-the-Month Club; Time, Life, Fortune, Sports Illustrated, Money, and dozens of other magazines; and scores of additional businesses.

Weakened and defanged in the Reagan greedfest of the 1980s, antitrust laws remain selectively enforced. (Rules that apply to the Microsoft, for example, seem not to apply to AOL.) In November, Time Warner agreed to open up its cable systems to AOL competitor Earthlink in order to satisfy regulatory concerns about consumers' options. On December 14, the five member Federal Trade Commission approved the merger. During the George W. Bush presidency, corporate giantism is expected to prosper.

As Ben Bagdikian states in the 2000 edition of The Media Monopoly, "the country's most widespread news, commentary, and daily entertainment are controlled by six firms... [which] exceed in their size and communications power anything the world has ever seen before...." (In 1983, when Bagdikian's book was first published, American media were dominated by 50 firms.)

The six firms are Time Warner, Disney, Viacom, Australian tycoon Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., Germany's Bertelsmann, and General Electric. "These six have more annual media revenues than the next twenty firms combined," Bagdikian notes. "The power and influence of the dominant companies are understated by counting them as 'six.' They are intertwined: they own stock in each other, they cooperate in joint media ventures, and among themselves they divide profits from some of the most widely viewed programs on television, cable, and movies." Their combined economic and informational power translates into political might.

AOL's fusion with Time Warner illustrates how unfettered free enterprise leads to oligopoly and monopoly. Bagdikian warns that AOL Time Warner "is likely to force other giant media firms... to make similar mergers with Internet and communications giants like Microsoft, AT&T, and MCI World.... The emerging picture has overtones, subtle or otherwise, of an Orwellian Big Brother, Incorporated."

AOL's trademarked slogan, "AOL Anywhere" now has toxic implications. "Having an address at aol.com," says Seth Finkelstein, "is the Internet equivalent of buying bottled water from Love Canal."

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