Before March 8, 2006, nothing about having this journal was exciting. I’d change my CSS, update links and rewrite articles just to keep myself awake while I read it. I’d stare at my site counter and wonder if it looked unprofessional. I started thinking that since I own a journal with the title How to Cancel, Uninstall or Complain About AOL I should link to something on AOL about how to cancel. I spent another week berating myself for my stupidity: my journal had no link like that for three months. By the end of February or the beginning of March I’d found AOL.com’s Cancel My Account page, and added the link to my Site Map.
That didn’t make this journal exciting, either. To shake things up, I wrote an article about censorship practices at America Online. I swapped out the CSS again. I waited for more stupid email from “firstname.lastname@example.org” (not quite her real email address): should she “contact the BBB to get $800 back from AOL” for long-distance dial-up charges? After my third reply (in which I told her she’ll “whistle Dixie before she sees a dime” from AOL–sorry Di) she knocked it off. I searched for more “how to cancel AOL” stories, and added some comments to Dave Taylor’s page, How Do I Cancel My America Online Account? where there was a discussion with people writing “try this” to get it done or “do that”, so I posted a link to AOL.com’s Cancel My Account page and wrote that my journal is about how to cancel AOL, among other things. A little free press never hurt, so I repeated the same links and comments in another discussion at theispguide.com and I went to bed.
The next evening I checked my link to AOL.com’s Cancel My Account page. The link for it revealed a newly-deleted page ( update 04-26-2006: click here to see the page as it was before AOL deleted it). It’s rare for sites to delete anything without showing a redirect URL or taking you to the new URL by automatic re-direct, so I was immediately suspicious. I went to AOL.com and found another URL with a copy of the deleted page, posted it on my site, then returned to Dave Taylor’s comment section and the ISP’s Guide’s forum to write that AOL deleted the Cancel My Account info from the link I’d posted, and that rather than post another link and have AOL delete the page again, anyone interested could find it on my site. (“AOL really doesn’t want you to cancel!” I added.)
The Cancel My Account page was deleted again by AOL within 24 hours of my posting a new link to it. As of 03-31-2006 this deleted copy of AOL’s Cancel My Account page still gives the message “DeletedMessageforViewDocumentPage” but AOL recycles deleted copies of it into AOL Help Index Pages so fast that the message probably won’t be there much longer (update 04-26-2006: this link was recycled before being deleted again; click here to see it as it was.)
After AOL deleted the Cancel My Account page again — making two deleted copies of it in one week — I stayed up nights looking for a new URL for it. Three nights later I was exhausted and figured the page was gone. On March 14 I searched for websites that might’ve reprinted it, and found Joe at University of Oregon: Checking Out of AOL who’d reprinted part of the missing page with a link for what he called “AOL’s semi-hidden, magic phone number.” Delighted with a new link I’d never seen before (also “semi-hidden” by AOL for over three years) I tested it; it was a good link, so I copied it to my site. 24 hours later, I tested Joe’s link again. AOL didn’t just delete this link’s Cancel My Account page, for the third time in one week, they rewrote it as another AOL Index Page. Someone at AOL caught on to what I was doing and didn’t like it, obviously. Their reasons for disliking it probably are:
- They don’t want the Cancel My Account page easy to find. Before I posted links to it on sites with high Google Page Rank, like Dave Taylor’s and theispguide’s it wasn’t easy to find at all, in direct violation of AOL’s 1997 voluntary agreement with Washington State.
- Linking to AOL’s Cancel My Account page might increase Google PR for my journal, which didn’t occur to me until I did a Google search for Marah’s AOL Log after AOL’s page deletions and found it on Google’s Page 4 for the terms “canceling AOL”, with the link to AOL.com’s page in Google’s text-snippet.
To me PR means nothing, almost no one visits my site anyway. (Ha ha AOL, you obsessive freaks, wasting time over lil ol’ me.) But in AOL’s (paranoid) eyes, I’m the Web’s latest, most serious anti-AOL writer, and I’m definitely moving up in Google. I’m linking to AOL and linking to other site’s most popular pages about AOL, so my site might catch on and become popular. (Hint: I’m not holding my breath.) Regardless of reality (which AOL is out of touch with, just like their cache servers) AOL sees me as a threat: they might lose current and future customers over me. (I wouldn’t lose sleep over it AOL; you’re losing business faster than KMart without my help.)
I can’t speak to how mature the following was, because I’m 35 years old, but at that point I almost lost it. I updated my page to reflect that Joe’s link to the “semi-hidden, magic phone number” was junk after working fine for three years, rewritten as an Index within 24 hours of my linking to it. I taunted AOL’s programmers on my Site Map, writing:
…If you’re reading this, you might be the jerk[s] at AOL who went to tremendous trouble to move, then delete “cancel contact info” pages from AOL.com the week of 03-12-2006. Imagine anyone at AOL rearranging their entire site because of….me. [AOL deleting the page three times] doesn’t change my plans at all. I’ll blockquote the text from it; the hell with the URI. What will you do about that? You can’t fight me.
Despite my “can’t faze me” attitude, if I’d met an AOL programmer on the street I can’t say which river you’d be fishing him out of right now. I was that hot for days. I calmed down when it occurred to me they’re probably just following orders; someone over their heads made them do it. (Not that they didn’t enjoy it.) I took my taunts off my page. I wrote to Joe about AOL’s Cancel My Account page being deleted after I published links to it on other people’s websites and told him the link to the “semi-hidden, magic phone number” was enjoying new life as an AOL Index page. Joe wrote back, “…funny how that works, isn’t it?” I searched other websites for a complete quote of the page I needed from AOL, found it, and put it on my site. I searched AOL.com a few days later just for “fun.” Using their site search engine, the Answer Wizard, (which hadn’t worked most of the entire week AOL was moving and deleting their Cancel My Account Page) I found still another new URL for it. The Timeline for this nightmare can be found here.
I could’ve danced for joy, but I couldn’t link to the page on my site; if I did I knew it would be deleted again. I was tired of playing “find the link” with AOL’s programmers. So I did the next best thing: I grabbed the source-code and “ran” it back to my site, where it turned into the Mirror of AOL’s Cancel My Account Page. The page I mirrored has been around longer than any of them since the trouble started: about
four days. Will AOL’s programmers delete it again? Doesn’t matter; I’ll still have the code. Now I’m waiting to be sued for copyright infringement, which probably won’t happen because my page is what I say it is: a mirror. Now that that’s over, my journal is not exciting. But I sleep better.
The fact that AOL made their Cancel My Account page impossible to find now that they’ve deleted the page from three different URLs on AOL.com and deleted the Keyword “Cancel” from their A-Z Keywords List puts them in direct violation of their 1997 voluntary agreement with Washington State (and their $2.6 million settlement with 43 states in 1998) as can be seen by reading this outline of the agreement between AOL and the Washington State Attorney General. The outline reads in part:
In addition, AOL must notify its subscribers of its cancellation methods, provide several ways for customers to contact them…
AOL must also provide cancellation information online through a keyword search on “cancel” and its Terms of Service…
Trying to find AOL’s Cancel My Account page by a Google search or browsing AOL.com
is was useless (after submitting this to Digg.com I got a crash course in dynamically linked pages and frames courtesy of well-informed Diggers). Clicking my Mirror you can see there’s a lot of info subscribers must have on hand to cancel an account and three ways to cancel: by phone, fax, or hand-written letter. Yet AOL provides only one way to access all this information at once: by using their site search engine, the Answer Wizard. I found the how-to page by typing the word “cancel” into the Wizard. Then I was shown a series of dialog boxes where I had to check off answers to multiple choice questions asking if I really wanted to cancel, and if so, why, before being shown the page that I mirror now. Many subscribers won’t think to use the Wizard to find this page, or might lose patience with all the questions they must answer before AOL allows them to see it, which is the whole idea, I’m sure.
I’ve contacted the Washington State Attorney General with my concerns in a letter that I’ll reprint with my next update. If you support my letter please contact the Washington State Attorney General by using this Contact Form.
04-07-2006: A comment was made that AOL keeps info at Keyword “Cancel”; just click the word “Cancel” in their TOS (terms of service) to see it. Then he warns me that “of course” I have to be a member to do so. Oh, so that’s why members pay $25.90 a month: for access to it. God knows it’s not for any of their content, most of which is free of charge on the Web. I clicked “Cancel” anyway. The screenshot (12-18-2007 -link is gone) is of a “This Page Coming Soon!” pop-up after clicking on it.
Come to think of it (almost a month later), if the how-to cancel page is “members-only” why did Dave Taylor get the same pop-up I’m getting when he was trying to figure out how to to cancel his account?
04-13-2006: Thanks to everyone who let me know after I wrote this that AOL keeps a copy of their Cancel My Account page at http://help.channels.aol.com/kjump.adp?articleId=219764.
04-24-2006: Updated screen shot
(I lost my copy moving the site around) with Opera browser. Opera’s default text is bigger than Avant’s for AOL’s TOS page.
05-05-2006: The most reliable no-brainer way to find AOL’s how-to-cancel page is using the Answer Wizard, but the parent copy of the page was found shortly after I submitted this to Digg.com by a few readers, including Nicholas. He used a Google hack:
which produced this link:
on the second page of Google’s results.
How many people — honestly — use Google hacks to find out how to cancel AOL? How many should have to?
05-10-2006: AOL responded to my complaint. Read the conclusion: Thanks, Heidi, but I still hate everything about AOL. Heidi cleared up how the Keywords list is displayed. There are actually two Keyword Lists on AOL.com: one for members, one for non-members. I was reluctant to believe that when it was first mentioned by a commenter here — I’d never heard of a website doing anything like it. My apologies for riding a little rough on the hint dropped that day.
9-6-07: Stats are from Digglicious but they’re wrong. The story was at 2892 Diggs when I pulled my profile off Digg.com over moderation issues last fall. Tested these links again. Many of them don’t work. That was kind of the idea, but now I see the ISP Guide’s and some government documents went AWOL, too.
Further Reading: AOL’s ADP and Tcl. At the height of March Madness Over Marah at AOL the content of their how-to page would change every few minutes before being deleted and/or re-written as a Help Index, so my next question was, with a big site like theirs, how do they zero in on what I want, then delete and/or re-write it so fast? I noticed each URL I came up with–however fleetingly–had weird info in its name: “log-in failure + error 217”, “auth-level=1”, “incident id #” — right-click and choose “Source” to see those links — I think you should — they’re that weird. The Tcl article mentions that in “competent” hands, the options with [AOL] dynamic pages are endless.