Can AOL silence its critics?

The latest site to be burned by America Online's heat is peeved, but not surprised.

By Janelle Brown
July 1, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)
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If America Online wants to shut down all of the Web sites lambasting its service, it will face a fairly daunting task -- the phrase "AOL Sucks" drags up 440 pages in one Hotbot search alone. But that doesn't mean that AOL isn't trying.

Inside-AOL, a Web site for peeved AOL volunteers and members that vociferously criticized the practices of AOL, was shut down on Tuesday by its Internet service provider, Hypermart. The Inside-AOL staff says it received an e-mail from Hypermart informing it that the site's service was being suspended due to its use of copyrighted AOL graphics -- namely, two screen-shots of the upcoming AOL 5.0 software. A related site at kenton.org, which also boasted AOL 5.0 screen-shots, and was also hosted by Hypermart, was similarly shut down.

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Hypermart says the Inside-AOL site wasn't just putting up screen-shots, but offering AOL 5.0 software for download, and the ISP took down the site at AOL's behest. "Essentially, there was use of AOL's software that was a violation of copyright law; for us it was a pretty clean-cut legal basis to take the site down," says Mark Peterson, spokesman for Go2Net, which owns Hypermart.

Citing fair-use laws, Inside-AOL founder Adrian Lamo says that the site posted only the graphics; he says the site was using the screen-shots to discuss the flaws of the latest version of AOL's software. The site also linked to other Web pages where AOL 5.0 could be downloaded. In his opinion, that's not a crime -- but he isn't surprised by AOL's response. "AOL loves doing this -- the excuse they usually use is the presence of copyrighted images. That's their silver bullet for getting rid of sites they don't like."

AOL did not return phone calls requesting information about the closures.

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But the world's largest Internet access provider does, in fact, have a history of trying to quiet its online enemies, which goes back at least as far as 1995, when it threatened the author of an anti-AOL Web page called "Why AOL Sucks." And this is the second time this month that AOL has come under fire for forcing the shutdown of a site; last week, news reports said that AOL had "stolen" the address of aolsearch.com from a woman who was running an African-American information site at that URL. That woman claims that AOL snatched the address from Network Solutions illegally, thereby causing her site to disappear, after claiming that it had rights to the URL because of the presence of those three copyrighted letters "AOL."

The Inside-AOL tiff also comes amid rumors of a potential Department of Labor investigation into AOL's alleged abuse of volunteers -- an investigation spurred by another Web site that specializes in criticizing AOL, Observers.net.

The Inside-AOL site was quietly reinstated on Wednesday morning, because, Peterson claims, the software download was removed. The case remains under "review" by Hypermart and AOL, he says.

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Still, Lamo believes that as AOL grows -- beyond its current 17 million subscribers -- its propensity for silencing criticism will only get worse. "AOL is positioning itself to become a global media power ... They control a huge amount of Internet traffic," says Lamo. "The thought of so much power in the hands of a company that seems to know no limits in moving to silence its enemies is scary."


Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

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