A mystery in my life has been solved almost 20 years later and it turns out AOL was an even worse company in the 90s than I thought…
You younglings may not even know this but in the 1990s, before AOL (“America OnLine”) was a low-end video creator and distributor, it was the only way just about anyone could connect to the internet. As the biggest and often only internet service provider for what is now known as “dial up” but then was just known as “the only internet that exists”, AOL had a monopoly on access to the world wide web.
I was kicked off AOL at least 3 times. And by “I” that of course means my family since I was a minor using a screen name under their account. The stories of each kick-off is worth its own post but the summary is that they were forms of “spam” (soliciting invites through instant messages for people to add themselves to my free Jokes and humor email newsletter) and “harassment” (getting baited by someone in a chatroom picking a fight and then responding, only to have them report me while they got away with their more egregious use of bullying profanity). Those cases were ridiculous reasons to cancel my families internet service and force them to use a different name and credit card to re-ignite with new screen names at much inconvenience to everyone – but at least I was actually technically violating their stupid “TOS” (Terms of Service). The last time I got banned, I did nothing wrong. I just recently Sherlock Holmesed the reason why…
Barry Crimmins is a comedian who is the subject of a new documentary by Bobcat Goldthwait titled Call Me Lucky and while plugging it on the Adam Carolla podcast, he told a story covered in the movie that made me realize why I was kicked off AOL and how it is 100% his fault.
If the stupid reasons I was previously banned weren’t hinting enough: AOL was a supremely bad company in the 90s. It’s customer service was bad, its actual-service was bad, it raped you on fees, constantly had virus problems, let spam run nearly unfiltered into your email inbox, spammed your real-life mailbox with trial membership discs, and would ban you from their service if you said a curse word in a chat room or someone on instant message reported you after not liking what you said.
There was one niche they evidently serviced super well though, according to Crimmins: pedophiles.
I would get perverts messaging me all the time wanting to “cyber” which meant “cyber sex” which meant “type out sexual things and I guess masturbate in between typing while imagining what the other person is typing back at you” but Crimmins tells of darker experiences. Evidently AOL was a haven for not just the easy solicitation of sex talk but the actual dissemination of child pornography. The tale of Crimmins battle against the company is worth hearing in interviews and watching in the documentary but the point is that AOL was allegedly turning a blind eye toward child abuse because it made them millions. Pre-teen entrepreneurial douches like me were just causing a ruckus for other paying members so we were easy to kick off the service – but child pornographers were only sharing their filth amongst themselves so there was no disgruntled customer to report to AOL. But even when Crimmins went undercover and DID report the people trying to solicit whom they thought was a child, AOL still did nothing because there was just too much money involved in these people paying for their service to trade their kiddie abuse media.
GROSS: So you wrote repeatedly to AOL and asked them to shutdown these pedophile chat rooms.
CRIMMINS: Right, and they were making a lot of money on it, so they just filed a – because in – back in those days the modems were really slow. And so it took, like, a half-hour to upload a, you know, low-grade picture.
GROSS: We’re talking dial-up era.
CRIMMINS: Right, right, and so it took a long time to upload each photo and all these – and then if you’re on AOL for more than 12 hours or something a month, they started charging you $3 or $4 an hour. So when you find, you know, thousands of people that are, you know, in the same chat rooms all the time or you find that one of the chat rooms that are named thusly – I mean, like anyone else, when I first went in there I just said what – are you people out of your minds? And they started talking to me about the First Amendment and stuff. And as Andrew Vachss said, you know, you can mug somebody and try to call it performance art, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to get away with it. And I just realized – you know, I would go in there as an adult, you know, with my own AOL name and people would just start sending me child pornography immediately. Like, no sort of – they just, oh, that’s what you’re here for, here. And they expected you to send child pornography back to them. And so I immediately contacted AOL and they said, oh, thank you very much for being, you know, a bunch of corporate – good citizen of our community, blah, blah, blah. But as time passed and I watched the problem grow exponentially, their answers became, you know, they – the back and forth between us just became more and more ridiculous.
After a public slog against the company involving a testimony in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee., Crimmins evidently finally got AOL to take child rape seriously… and in doing so, he got an innocent mid-90s Richard kicked off the service yet again, much to his continued disgrace.
The last time I was banned from the America Online service it was for going in a chatroom. For years I was baffled at wtf happened and thought it had to have been a coincidence and that the AOL Feds had just caught me for some snarky comment or profane one-liner I had said in a chatroom prior to then. But finally now after hearing Crimmins tell his story and matching the timelines, it makes sense WTF happened to me.
I had heard from the kid sitting in front of me in school make the ludicrous claim that “if you go into private chatroom PICS, your account gets deleted”…
Um…right. This is so wrong it couldn’t be more wrong, I told him. That is dumb upon dumb. I knew first had that AOL had horribly fascistic policies on wantonly killing their customers accounts, but there was no way that entering a chat room would get your account canceled. I had heard of some chat rooms being banned in the sense that if you typed them in then it wouldn’t let you access the room, but there was just no damn way that you would be allowed in a room and then denied service on your whole account just for going to private room “pics”. That’s it. PICS. Not “Pics of government secrets” or “pics of death fantasies involving elected officials” – just pics. As in, short for “pictures”. Or maybe an acronym for something unrelated to photography. Who knows. You could make a private chatroom of any series of letters and numbers.
I couldn’t wait to prove him wrong so that day I got home, logged into AOL and after about 30 minutes of waiting for it to frigging connect, went to “Enter A Private Chat Room” and typed in PICS…
“GOODBYE” said the AOL voice as the software closed all windows and kicked me offline.
No… freakin… way…
Okay, so there was some kind of hack that someone in the PICS room used to kick offline anyone who entered. That had to be it. There was a thing called Punting that used a program that would bomb the instant messengers in AOL and that would disconnect them so I thought for sure it was a version of that.
No, dude. I could not reconnect. The dreaded “Please call this number” cancelled membership message appeared when I tried to connect. I was screwed. and this time I legitimately did nothing wrong!
Now, after hearing Crimmins tell his tale against the company during exactly that time, it seems way more obvious: The chat room was almost surely a meeting place for AOL pedophiles and AOL had just switched from a “90 strikes and maybe we’ll talk about you possibly being out” policy on rapists to more of a “Zero tolerance for anyone who does anything not identified with anything illegal but that a pedophile also previously did” and that chat room must have been infested with pedo-creeps and thus condemned. There is no confirmation that this is the case, but given Crimmins storytelling of the time, it sounds like AOL just started mass-deleting accounts with suspected activity instead of going through the trouble of doing word searches or an actual investigation or something that a company that wasn’t horrible might do.
So thanks for nothing, Barry Crimmins. In saving countless children from having their abuse flaunted on the internet, you ruined several weeks for a young Richard.