For a period of nine or 10 days, America Online users were unable to post messages to the venerable USENET distributed discussion system, apparently due to a technical problem that prevented messages from propagating beyond AOL's news servers. Other AOL users could read the messages posted, but the messages were not propagated to the wider USENET community.
While AOL resolved the problem Monday, it left many AOL customers who spend their time on USENET wondering why they were getting little information from AOL's much-touted customer service.
"For the past week, or longer, America Online members have been experiencing problems with posting to USENET Newsgroups," AOL customer Kim Hendricks told internetnews.com. "America Online members have recently determined that although the USENET portion of America Online appears to be running properly, they are in fact being fooled. Posts sent to newsgroups have been recently hidden from non-AOL members, causing uproar in the newsgroup using America Online community."
She continued, "Even worse than the problem itself is the lack of responsibility America Online has shown in acknowledging there is a problem. Hundreds to thousands of members cite tech support woes, form letters being returned in response to their complaints, and America Online's own system status report indicating there are no known problems at this time. Attempts to e-mail Steve Case and the Newsmaster appear to be lost somewhere in an Internet black hole. A quick glance at aol.newsgroups.help or aol.newsgroups.bugs can confirm this. Many members make claims of having to resort to filing claims with the Federal Trade Commission, the Better Business Bureau, and/or their state's consumer relations department."
"This is happening in all newsgroups, and this is the third day for it," one frustrated poster to the aol.newsgroups.bugs newsgroup wrote on Jan. 7. "I'm on the phone right now, have been all morning and getting passed around. I'm online with CompuServe, which AOL tells me handles that part of their equipment. We'll see."
Twenty-six minutes later, the same poster wrote: "Well, after 30 minutes waiting online for a tech, I finally hung up. Hope the Newsmaster reads their e-mail."
The next day, another angry poster wrote to the same newsgroup, "Even after all of the calls and e-mails, no one has reported that any AOL techs have seen a problem resolution number on their screens. We deserve the courtesy of the newsmaster acknowledging the problem on the "problems with newsgroups" board and an estimated time of repair. I don't care whether it is the local bank, or AOL, the customer is paying the bills and should be given at least that much courtesy. If we just sit back and let ourselves be treated like children, AOL will continue to treat us as such."
On Jan. 11, one poster said he had received conflicting answers from AOL support, with one tech saying that the cause of the problem was not an error, but new AOL policy. "The phone techs tell me this is now AOL policy, messages to be provided within the AOL community only," he wrote. "Online tech says it is a problem which will be fixed, but no announcement or e-mail will be sent (which convinces me they are not doing anything with reports)."
AOL spokesman Nicholas Graham said Monday that the cause was, in fact, a technical problem.
"I can confirm that we had some technical issues affecting USENET Newsgroup feeds that have since been resolved," Graham told internetnews.com. However, he would not explain the cause of the problem. "We're still looking into the issue," he said.
Also, contrary to user posts that said the problem began on Jan. 3 or Jan. 4, Graham said, "The issue first became apparent on or around Jan. 7."
Graham also declined to comment immediately on the customer service issue.
USENET is a world-wide distributed discussion system which consists of a set of "newsgroups" with names that are classified hierarchically by subject. When users post messages to newsgroups, the messages are broadcast to other interconnected computer systems via a variety of networks, with the bulk of traffic transported over the Internet or UUCP. In the case of the problems experienced by AOL users over the past days, the messages were apparently not broadcast beyond AOL's network.