Baltimore man can't get message out about anger at computer fee

September 15, 1990|By Leslie Cauley

When Larry Wienner of Baltimore heard that Prodigy, the computerized home-shopping and information service, plans to limit the number of free messages people can send each month, he decided to call a boycott against the service.

But he's had a hard time getting things organized because Prodigy, citing its business interests, won't let him or anybody else send messages across the network if they call for a boycott.

"It's, like, weird," said Mr. Wienner, a computer buff who works evenings in a Giant food store pharmacy. "I feel like I'm living in Orwell's '1984.'"

Mr. Wienner and other users are upset about Prodigy's plans to limit free messages to 30 a month -- with a 25-cent charge for each additional message -- starting next year.

As far as Prodigy Services Co. is concerned, however, the decision to bar anyone from sending out boycott messages to the 473,000 subscribers has nothing to do with Big Brother or even censorship.

"We're just looking out for our business interests," said Brian Ek of Prodigy, a joint venture between Sears Roebuck & Co. and International Business Machines Corp. that is based in White Plains, N.Y.

Mr. Ek said Prodigy studies have shown that most households do not send more than 30 messages a month. But some households were vastly exceeding that limit -- one user sent 20,000 messages in a single month -- and he said Prodigy felt it had to do something to hold down costs.

And now that the decision to attach a cost to what had been a free, unlimited service has been made, Prodigy is not about to allow anyone to use the network to organize a boycott against Prodigy and its advertisers.

Messages that call for boycotts are being ferreted out by Prodigy's "editorial board," said Geoffrey E. Moore, Prodigy's director of marketing and communications.

A message rejected by the board is returned to the author unedited and unchanged, he said. The author may revise the message and try again, he said.

"We do not post messages that are intended to destroy the system that is intended to provide value to 473,000 members," Mr. Moore said.

The editorial blackout applies to public messages only, he said, and does not affect one-on-one private messages.

In addition to calls for a boycott, Prodigy does not allow obscene or libelous messages to be sent to its electronic bulletin boards, where owners of personal computer can communicate electronically. Prodigy has eight bulletin boards that cover about 100 subjects, from food to travel.

Under the framework established by Prodigy, discussions through bulletin boards are supposed to be limited to those specific topics.

But some subscribers are trying some clever ruses to slip messages through.

After getting several boycott messages returned, Mr. Wienner said, he attached three seemingly innocuous letters -- STF -- to the end of a message about an oldies album bound for a music bulletin board.

"STF," as Prodigy's eagle-eyed editorial board apparently figured out, was short for "Stop The Fees."

The message was returned.

Another message -- "The seed has grown, and the word is out" -- a cryptic reference to the original subscribers and the current controversy over rate changes, also came back as "not acceptable," Mr. Wienner said.

Industry experts don't expect the current frustration by some subscribers over new charges to have a serious effect on the service. Prodigy expects to have nearly 1 million users by the end of next year.

Gary Arlen, publisher of Interactivity Report, a newsletter that tracks the videotex industry, said the fracas probably involves less than 20 percent of Prodigy's subscribers.

As a private network, many civil libertarians say, Prodigy probably has the right to limit the content of messages sent across its network, but most see that right as a double-edged sword if Prodigy exercises it too frequently.

"There is a central question over whether Prodigy can fairly describe its service as a communication service if they only plan to allow communication that doesn't cause problems for Prodigy," said Mark Rotenberg, director of the Washington office of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility. "That's like the phone company telling users that they can't use the phone to raise questions about phone rates."

Stuart Comstock-Gay, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union in Baltimore, said he worries that crackdowns such as the one at Prodigy don't bode well for free speech in the 1990s and beyond, as more people use computers and electronic bulletin boards as the town meeting place.

If the trend continues, he said, companies that own bulletin boards "could wind up having a lot of control over the kinds of things people talk about," he said. "You'll have a situation where very unpopular ideas will have a hard time getting out."

This isn't the first time that Prodigy has had a run-in with subscribers over the content of messages.

Last year Prodigy disbanded a health bulletin board after homosexuals started using it to meet and chat. Prodigy denied, however, that gay communication figured into the decision to disband the bulletin board, saying usage wasn't high enough to justify continuing it.

Mr. Arlen said the incident pointed up Prodigy's sensitivity about controversial subjects, a sore point that seems to have resurfaced with the current controversy.

"I think censoring content is a real snake pit, and I'm sorry the industry keeps falling into it," Mr. Arlen said. "And, unfortunately, Prodigy seems to keep leading the march to the pit."

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