America Online has become the leading provider of Internet access to the common user. Through its slick, easy-to-use, and heavily marketed connection software, novices can quickly connect to much of the Internet with a simple point-and-click interface.
With its four million members and a worldwide presence, America Online has become a key figure in the Internet's future. But what kind of a leader will AOL be? AOL has a large staff devoted to cleansing the service of content and users the company deems undesirable. Its easy-to-use client software lacks the sophistication that Internet users expect. It makes chilling threats of litigation against those who criticize the service. Should such a company lead the Internet into the future?
The Internet has been known as a place of free speech, where one can discuss any topic without fear of censorship or retalliation. This is not the case on AOL. Staff known as "Guides" regularly patrol the service, looking for members violating the Terms of Service, including using any of AOL's ninety banned words. These roving censors have the power to take disciplinary action against violators of AOL's rules, including the cancellation of members' accounts.
When America Online's Webmaster, Jason Mitchell, found out about this web site, he was not pleased. In fact, he wanted it shut down. So, he sent an email message threatening litigation to both this site's author and his Internet provider. When Mitchell's demands went unmet, and the Internet community protested AOL's attempted censorship, an AOL vice president apologized and Mitchell offered this site's author a job at the company.
AOL's key selling point is its software's ease of use. AOL's graphical interface is so simple that children and computer novices can easily make their way onto the Internet. However, AOL's software is suitable only for the lightest use of the Internet, and is even then can be very annoying. AOL's mail and netnews clients are so short on features that they quickly become frustrating; the other Internet clients offered are no better, and are often extremely slow. In addition, the cute icons and pictures are expensive, for all of the art that's used in them must be downloaded, usually at the standard $2.95/hour rate.
Nearly everyone in the country has seen an AOL signup kit; those who are involved with computers are often deluged with them. AOL, faced with tough competition from other online services, and terrified of the competitive power of potential players like telephone and cable companies, is desperately trying to increase its market share. By making it ridiculously easy to sign on and ridiculously hard to get off, AOL hopes to gain enough of a market share in order to survive the upcoming interactive-media war.