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BOY'S E-MAIL INDISCRETION STIRS WRATH OF CYBER GIANT

He's just 10 years old, no higher than a snow drift in his Orchard Park subdivision. Like a lot of kids, he talked with friends on America Online after school each day.

Until a few weeks ago, when Derrick Wolbert, all 70 pounds of him, was deemed a menace to cyberspace.

AOL, the largest Internet provider with 15 million customers, banned him. For life.

When friends tried to send him e-mail, they found he no longer existed.

When his father, Dennis, a financial controller for a Springville company, tried to sign on, he, too, was barred.

So was Derrick's 13-year-old sister, Marie, when she tried chatting with friends on AOL or searching World Wide Web sites for homework.

What exactly did Derrick do?

He smiles, shrugs his shoulders, and acts a little embarrassed.

"I e-mailed a kid," he said. "I said I was, like, an AOL agent."

That was it. Without knowing it, Derrick, a fifth-grader at Eggert Elementary School, violated America Online's membership agreement by posing as an AOL employee.

The company booted him, his father and his sister.

When Dennis Wolbert called to ask, AOL said the decision was final. There was no appeal.

"I thought I'd go through with it a little bit, to teach him a lesson," Wolbert said. "Then I called them back."

"We already told you," the AOL representative said. "You're banned for life."

"Can I talk to a supervisor?" Wolbert asked.

"No, there's no appeal," came the reply.

The more he thought about it, the angrier he got.

"How do I get banned for life, too?" Wolbert asked. "And there's no appeal process?"

He complained to Dennis Rosen, an assistant state attorney general in Buffalo, who handles consumer issues.

"He was concerned about overkill," Rosen said. "When the kid is 50, if he wins the Nobel Prize, will he still be unable to go on America Online?"

Rosen said he recognizes the need for American Online and other Internet service providers to police their operations. But he also wonders about putting the matter in context.

"When you have a child engaging in this kind of conduct, who is banned for life, who has this hammer coming down, does the punishment fit the act?" Rosen asked. "They should show a little more compassion, sensitivity, and be a little less bureaucratic."

Ultimately, America Online agreed.

Contacted by The Buffalo News, AOL looked into the case and decided that its employees who talked to Wolbert were a little heavy-handed.

But Tricia Primrose, an AOL spokeswoman, said the company considers what Derrick did a serious offense.

"Someone impersonating an America Online employee is an absolute violation of our terms of service," she said, "whether it's someone 10 years old or 80 years old."

She said America Online receives 1.5 million messages from customers a week, and said a supervisor probably should have reviewed the Wolbert case.

The company takes such a strong stance because people posing as America Online employees frequently try to persuade others to tell them passwords or credit card numbers.

"It's one of the more prevalent things we see, and we do take it very seriously," she said.

"But this is a case where a 10-year-old is involved. There's a context here," she said. "We've decided to make a decision to bring him back."

She said an America Online representative will talk with Derrick's father about guidelines and will reinstate their account.

Wolbert said he complained to the attorney general because of the principle involved.

"It's not the end of the world," he said, "but I thought it was ridiculous. You can go to another Internet service, but he's talking to all his buddies and friends on AOL."

As America Online continues to grow and become even more popular, especially among students who go on line as soon as they get home from school, AOL each day becomes more like the phone company.

Rosen, the assistant attorney general, won't go so far as comparing America Online to a utility, but admits the parallels are there.

"I think the kind of conduct, an absolute bar, banned for life, no appeal, I think it raises some questions," he said.

Ms. Primrose said customers are not terminated without reason, that they agree to AOL's terms of service when they sign up.

Derrick, interviewed while putting away two hot dogs and a plate of macaroni and cheese before playing with his soccer team, is guilty as charged.

Why did he do it?

"I don't know," he said. "I was just fooling around."

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