NEW YORK—AOL, formerly the largest internet service provider in the United States, has announced today that it will be launching a new email service directed at government officials who are not keen on using their government-provided email accounts.
GOL—which the company insists is not an acronym for Government Online—is intended to tap into an emerging market of officials who are eschewing the traditional protocol of using servers provided and secured by government security experts.
In 2016, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was investigated by the FBI after she was found sending official communications through a personal email server located in the basement of her home. While she was cleared of wrongdoing, the publicity surrounding her deviation from protocol may have cost her a victory in the 2016 presidential election.
This week, President Trump’s daughter and White House advisor Ivanka Trump was reported to have been using a personal email account last year, after the Trump administration had officially assumed executive duties.
“It’s clear from these events that there is a market for alternative email services,” said Margaret Chen, a spokesperson for the company. “Nobody was addressing it, and we saw an opportunity to change the world for the better.”
The new service offers a fully integrated suite of online tools including email, instant messaging, contacts, and a calendar that can be shared with other users or the public. Support is available for iOS at launch, with an Android app expected next spring.
AOL has said that it will be accessible to government officials worldwide, including countries with which the United States or its allies have a less-than-cordial relationship. The aim is to enhance collaboration between world leaders and avoid a breakdown in global communications.
Other benefits include personal touches that aren’t possible with government-provided email. One such feature is the ability to pick your own user name, allowing users to express their personality and creativity. Another is the ability to use emojis, thousands of which are supported and automatically inserted into each message.
Unlike government-run email servers which are funded by taxpayers, GOL is ad-supported. Advanced analytics will be used on incoming and outgoing messages to provide the user with ads that are most relevant to their interests and positions as world leaders. The company says that the analytics generated from classified content will only be shared with companies who promise not to leak it.
“We made them pinky-swear,” Chen said. “They crossed their hearts and hoped to die. We’re confident that there will be no leaks like with Facebook earlier this year. They had contracts, but if you can’t even stick a needle in their eye, how are you going to hold them accountable?”
Computer security experts are less than impressed. Mitch Sandwich, an information security consultant based in San Francisco, has been sounding alarm bells over the new service, urging governments to ban officials with top-level security clearance from using it.
“Governmental agencies have invested heavily in securing their infrastructure,” Sandwich said. “As we’ve seen recently with Russia hacking the DNC, and North Korea being connected to hacker-for-hire groups, the threats are absolutely real.
“There is no information about who will have access to the emails, where the data will be stored, if support is outsourced, or if background checks for employees are involved. What’s more startling is the fact that they’re fully open about scanning classified emails and nobody seems to have a problem with it.”
AOL became infamous in the 1990s for its mass distribution of free trial discs through postal mail, advertising “500 free hours” of internet access. However, the free offer was valid only for one month, meaning that a user would have to be connected to the internet 19 hours a day to take full advantage of the offer.
While AOL provided generally mediocre internet service and certainly wasn’t cheap, the direct marketing strategy and ease of installation made it a hit with consumers who were new to using the internet. AOL believes that it can draw on that experience with government officials who generally do not understand technology.
“When people talk about newbies, or noobs for short, on the Internet, what they’re really talking about is us,” explains Chen. “AOL invented noobs. When you hear politicians talking about a ‘series of tubes,’ or calling it ‘the cyber,’ that’s our kind of customer.”