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AOL ad policy under fire

The online service's decision to move ads for high-ticket items from message boards to for-fee classified sections has members up in arms.

What America Online claims was an act of integrity has caused some AOL message board aficionados to cry foul.

Starting June 1, message boards labeled "buy/sell" will be taken down, AOL announced in a statement to its "Hobbies" message board.

Under the new policy, AOL hobbyists and collectors wishing to buy or sell merchandise will have to post their advertisements in the classifieds section, which charges $9.95 for a two-week slot or $15.95 for a month. The boards that will be removed range from vehicles such as motorcycles and cars to collectibles such as Beanie Babies and Barbie dolls.

The move has angered a number of AOL message board users. Those particularly incensed by the decision have taken individual initiatives to protest, such as circulating an online petition that claims to already have 10,000 AOL member signatures, or threatening to cancel their subscriptions en masse.

Many angered members, already critical of the online service's $2 rate increase for unlimited monthly service, claim AOL's decision was based on greed.

"When I became a member of AOL, that service included the buy/sell boards," wrote AOL member John D. Enloe Jr. in an email message. "However, to raise their rates, and then remove a VERY popular feature, is wrong."

However, AOL claims its new policy is as an opportunity to clean up a system that had been clogged up with business transactions. AOL maintains that messages advertising merchandise belong in the classifieds.

"It's not appropriate for them to conduct transactions over message boards," said Tom Ziemba, an AOL spokesman. "Message boards were not made for transactions."

Ziemba said that most of the merchandise previously sold over the hobbyist message boards were valued under $100, thus keeping most of their advertisements free when the new policy takes effect. Nonetheless, he also noted that classified fees would not make much of a difference for people selling expensive items.

"We're putting things where they make sense," Ziemba added. "We're putting them where they belong."