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AOL: Look! Over There! A Ban on Pop-Up Ads!; Spain Takes Inquisition Online

Banning pop-ups, sort of

Media titan AOL Time Warner -- and especially its AOL division -- has been getting a lot of press lately. And it's not of the any-press-is-good-press variety. Instead, AOL has its own spotlight on the Wall Street Journal's Web site, and the news is rarely good these days. You can read about an SEC probe of an AOL deal with Oxygen Media. Or you could head to The New York Times to read in detail how AOL TW denied it would fall short on advertising revenues (online ads will make us a fortune!), and when it ended up falling short, it blamed 9/11. The latest bad news is from Merrill Lynch media analyst Jessica Reif, who says AOL will lose 72 percent of its profits from subscriptions as people switch to broadband. Ouch.

AOL tried its hand at media spin, with mixed results, as it announced that AOL 8.0 will not include pop-up ads served for third-party ads. The pop-up ad has been as reviled by Net users as spam e-mail, and iVillage and Earthlink have reaped PR windfalls by banning or helping ban pop-ups completely. But AOL decided it would still use pop-ups for special promotions of its own service, and for ads under current contracts. This partial ban will have two results: People won't notice that pop-ups are disappearing right away, and the internal promo pop-ups will give people a nasty taste in their mouths in relation to -- you guessed it -- AOL.

Even more entertaining is the report in InternetNews.com on AOL's splashy launch of its new software. The scene of 2,000 AOL subscribers being wined and dined with Alanis Morissette and Dana Carvey brings to mind an elaborate party on the Titanic, or perhaps a blowout in San Francisco's South of Market area as the dot-coms are bursting in air. Somehow, the battle between AOL and MSN for dial-up subscribers seems like a blast from the past, outdated and irrelevant. But the two are spending $400 million combined to promote their services, so the media can't not pay attention.

One sideshow to the sideshow: Wired News reports that even pop-up bans and blockers won't totally save you from pop-ups of the worst kind. Seems that DirectAdvertiser.com has figured out a way to serve unsolicited ads to people through Microsoft's Messenger service, previously used by system administrators to send messages to people on a network. The spam requires no Web browsers and even gets by firewalls, though it can be blocked by turning off Messenger or reconfiguring firewalls. Now that's nasty.

[Number of pesky pop-up ads hastily closed while doing research for the above: 13.]

 

Thought Police

It doesn't really make a lot of sense, but it seems in character when a repressive country such as China or Vietnam tries to block Web sites from the curious eyes of its citizens. The AP reports that Vietnam has issued new rules that require organizations and businesses get government approval before setting up a Web site. The government was just getting its Orwellian groove warmed up, as it also decided to hold cybercafes responsible for policing its customers' surfing habits. The Internet and its amazing access to so much global information -- good and bad -- has been the bane of isolationist governments for years. The AP notes that Vietnam arrested a doctor in March for translating and posting an article about democracy from the U.S. State Department.

More incredible is that Spain, which was still a democracy the last we checked, has a new rule called the Law of Information Society Services and Electronic Commerce (or LSSI), which went into effect last Saturday. According to The Register (UK), Spanish Web sites must now register with the government, and ISPs must monitor sites for objectionable content, and alert the authorities. Protestors are hoping to take their case to Spain's Constitutional Court, and are calling the law "inquisitorial" in a nod to Spanish history. More directly, the protestors are engaging in the ever-popular "blackout" by taking down Web content and serving blackened pages.

Depending on how widespread this protest goes, the effects will probably be minimal in the eyes of the Spanish government. But grassroots Net protests have hit paydirt in the U.S. -- just check out the power that small Net radio stations wielded recently. Perhaps the Spaniards could come up with a catchy slogan: Save Spanish Sites! The Rain in Spain Falls Mainly on Our Freedom of Speech! Oh, never mind.

 

Quotable

"There is almost no sacred place left in the vertical city. The elevator commute to the office used to offer precious seconds of silence, a chance to reflect on your (black) shoes. Or flirt on the fly. But not anymore. Now, the ride up is another chance to be chased by a news crawl, a jumpy stock market, the weather and sports. Giving new meaning to 'captive audience,' a Massachusetts company is determined to implant tiny video screens in every upscale office building in Manhattan and beyond and provide relentless headlines and ads for the Hummer or Dunkin' Donuts. Mercifully, there is no sound."

-- Geraldine Baum, writing in the L.A. Times about Captivity Network, a news service for elevators that made her reflexively gag at the loss of downtime. Her conclusion: "Private time, going down."

Mark Glaser currently writes technology features for The New York Times, travel stories for the San Jose Mercury News, and a bi-weekly e-mail newsletter for the Online Publishers Association, whose membership includes most major media companies online. That won't stop him from taking cheap potshots at these outlets, when necessary. You can contact him with any juicy tidbits about online journalism at glaze@sprintmail.com.