AOL: When “good news” isn’t actually good

The glory days of America Online are well behind them, but there are still a surprising number of people who continue to use the service, primarily for e-mail.  Today I received a forwarded copy of this message from AOL, sent on April 2.

You spoke, we listened!

In the past, your username was blocked from registering for free trials and purchasing products you may have seen advertised.

Good news – we have updated our systems, and as of today you are able to take advantage of everything AOL has to offer in addition to your existing AOL Advantage Plan.


Here are a few of our most popular products that might be of interest and have recently been made available to you:

The e-mail goes on to list three products: AOL Computer Checkup, LogMeIn Pro, and Quick Check Diagnostic. The first two have a “Try It Free!” button, but of course, there is the fine print.

*Free trial lasts 30 days. To avoid the recurring subscription fee, simply cancel before the free trial ends.

So the upshot is that AOL has taken the blocking option off this account, hoping to generate additional revenue through unintentional click-throughs. And they are marketing it as a feature. “Good news! We have disregarded your specified account restrictions and made it easier for you to buy stuff you don’t want!”

In the world of public relations, this is called “spin.” A less charitable person might call it “fraud.”

AOL has made similar questionable moves before. Back in 2006, as AOL faced declining membership and growing irrelevancy, they announced that they would move to a free membership model, earning their revenue through ad placement. However, they did not stop automatically billing their existing customers. Users could contact AOL to stop the charges, but there have been numerous complaints online that this was not easy to accomplish.

Then, to make things even worse, last year they nailed those paying customers again by slipping in an upgrade to something they called the “AOL Advantage Plus Plan.” As this post explains, the new plan took effect automatically unless the user could find the opt-out link buried in the e-mail notification.

Bottom line: If you like AOL, keep it. But if you’re still paying for it, you shouldn’t be. Paying for AOL made sense in the old days when no one had broadband and AOL provided dial-up Internet access for a monthly fee. Now, if you’re paying your cable or phone provider for Internet access and paying AOL each month, you are wasting your money.

As for this latest move, I haven’t yet found anyone on the Web calling AOL out for this. Hey, maybe I’m the first one. Or maybe it’s actually innocuous. But I’m suspicious. It doesn’t sound like “good news” to me.