I signed up with America Online in 1992, and though I now have another Internet service provider, I've kept that AOL account, through thin and thinner, mainly because it's too much hassle to change that e-mail address. But the bond that ties me to AOL is being stretched -- to the width of a few molecules.
On Friday the company succumbed to one of the lowest tricks in the Internet's get-rich quick handbook. It sent some spam my way to let me know that it was going to unleash a whole lot more spam on me.
"America Online, Inc. offers valuable products and services to you by using pop-up messages that appear on the AOL service," the e-mail began. "Previously, you indicated to AOL that you preferred not to receive these valuable offers through pop-ups. Your preference is due to expire December 1st, 1999. If you would like to begin receiving these special offers, simply do nothing now. If you want to renew your current preferences so you will not receive these offers, please go to the AOL Marketing Preferences area now."
Wait a minute. I told you once that I don't want this stuff. Why should I have to tell you again? What about your promise to protect users from junk mail? Remember this line, from a December 1998 press release: "America Online today announced that it has won three lawsuits brought against junk e-mailers as part of the company's continuing effort to protect AOL members from unwanted junk mail."
I couldn't get anyone in AOL's public relations office on the line, but I did reach Lauren
Weinstein, co-founder of People for Internet Responsibility. "At least they notified you," he replied. "To the degree that they gave notification, they should get credit."
Credit? I guess I should be happy they don't change every policy without warning. But this one is so clearly cheating. My preferences aren't going to "expire," like some ancient code heading into the new millennium. AOL just can't stand the fact that there are subscribers out there who are opting not to receive ads, opting not to add any padding to Steve Case's wallet.
"There is a general attitude among many players that if it can be done, it will be done," said Weinstein. "To the degree that the Internet resembles the wild West's legal structure, we should expect this." Then he adds: "They're depending on people's laziness."
I'm not lazy and I'll change my preferences. But I don't appreciate being saddled with busywork by a company I pay to serve my needs. Come on, Steve -- how much money do you need?