Reacting to complaints from dozens of angry Web developers, America Online (AOL) conceded today that a recent change to the setup of its software has effectively blocked access for AOL subscribers to some Web sites.
Only users of AOL's own customized version of Internet Explorer, a special version of the Microsoft browser licensed by AOL, are affected by the problem. AOL subscribers who use standalone versions of Navigator or Internet Explorer browsers can still get to everything on the Web.
This group includes, however, a significant percentage of AOL's 7 million subscribers, so many, that some Web sites actually noticed the decline in traffic and started looking around for the answer. And the answer has got them hopping mad at AOL.
The problem is the result of changes that AOL made earlier this month to its proxy servers, which store copies of Web pages on the AOL network in order to speed access to them for customers. That change is preventing users from reaching any Web site that uses HTTP 1.1, the latest edition of the basic protocol that transfers pages from Web servers.
AOL officials said today that the company is aware of the problem, but couldn't offer an explanation for why the service changed its proxy servers in the first place. "The company is aware of the problem and is working to rectify it," said AOL spokesman Steve Sigmund.
The problem appears to be a technical glitch, not an AOL effort to censor particular Web sites. Nevertheless, the snafu has rankled Webmasters whose are furious about being locked out by the largest commercial Internet access provider in the world.
"There was a noticeable fall in requests and a large number of problem reports sent to us by AOL users," said Rob Hartill, technical director of the Internet Movie Database. "We'll never know what long-term damage has been caused. We can't count the number of new users we've lost through no fault of our own. Hopefully, our long-standing AOL users will eventually come back again."
Harthill's site uses the Apache 1.2 server, one of the most popular Web servers and one that is based on the HTTP 1.1 protocol. According to a survey by Netcraft, Apache's Web servers hold the largest share of the Web server market.
Webmasters are also complaining that AOL is blaming Web sites for the problem in a message posted online for their users.
"The worst aspect is that AOL's error response indicated there was a problem with the remote server, rather than with their proxy server," said Brian Behlendorf, chief technology officer at Organic Online and a founder of the Apache HTTP Server Project, which developed the Apache Web server. "We have had to field hundreds of complaints from AOL users who think this is our fault, that we are providing an inadequate level of service. Many of these are our paying clients."
Behlendorf couldn't really quantify how many Web sites may be affected by the AOL changes to its proxy servers. But he said that there have been 15,000 downloads of the Apache 1.2 server from the Apache site in the last month.
The Apache project has posted a detailed explanation of the AOL problem on its Web site.