Cagey Consumer[13k]

For Immediate Release January 26, 1998

America Online Joins Cagey Consumer Hall of Shame

Stories of Work-At-Home Schemes Banished from AOL

Cagey Consumer, a web site designed to educate the public about fraudulent and deceptive businesses practices, today inducted America Online into its Hall of Shame.

Because online services like Prodigy, America Online, and Compuserve market their services to the general public, they have sometimes perceived it to be necessary to place limitations on the content that members may make available in public places such as forums, chat rooms, and web pages. To become aware of objectionable materials, such online service providers rely primarily on reports by members of offending material, which is apparently what happened to the web page of one America Online member whose web page described personal experiences with a variety of work-at-home schemes.

According to Cagey Consumer publisher Eli Mantel, Joanne's Work-at-Home Page (http://members.aol.com/joannens/homeinfo.html) contained personal experiences of a variety of programs that consisted largely of scams, many of which are still in operation. Anyone taking the time to read through all of the experiences that Joanne reported would be extremely wary of any of the programs mentioned or of similar programs, which may have made life difficult for a few AOL members who were promoting these scams, hoping to find new victims. It's likely that AOL members participating in these scams had asked AOL to remove Joanne's page, claiming it was defamatory.

Unfortunately, AOL complied.

AOL sent Joanne the following notice:

We have become aware of a web page that is part of your account. Certain portions of these pages violate our Terms of Service (which prohibit harassment, the use of vulgar or sexually oriented language, discussion of illegal activities, and other activities that may impair the enjoyment of our members).
Had AOL notified Joanne prior to removing her web page, she could have moved it to another web host, but instead, they removed it immediately, and so far, AOL has refused to make the content of Joanne's web page available to her. (Joanne had evidently not considered the possibility that AOL would deprive her of her own files, and thus had not bothered to save a copy on her own computer.)

The Trouble with Censorship

Attempts by online services to control what members post are very problematic: what one members claims to be offensive material is the legitimate opinion of another member. The people who must respond to hundreds of complaints a day do not have sufficient resources to adequately investigate each complaint. Instead, they operate on the principle that there are more people to complain about a web page that exists than there are to complain about a web page that has been removed.

Removal of Web Page Costs Consumers Thousands of Dollars

It is the Cagey Consumer's opinon that Joanne's Work-at-Home Page was uniquely effective at making people think twice before sending money in to work-at-home programs. For many people, general warnings from consumer agencies about work-at-home programs are quickly forgotten when they hear an offer promising a pot of gold, while personal experiences describing specific programs are more likely to be heeded. Joanne's page was probably saving consumers thousands of dollars every month. As a direct result of AOL's removal of this page, and their refusal to make the contents of that page available to her, this money will be lost to the con artists operating the programs she described.
The Cagey Consumer web site is hosted on GeoCities at www.geocities.com/wallstreet/5395. The editor and publisher of Cagey Consumer is Eli Mantel, a computer systems analyst in Palo Alto, California.
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