Although he doesn't frequent the Internet, and readily admits he goes on line for e-mail "and not much more," George Vradenburg's work as general counsel and senior vice president of America Online, Inc. (AOL) puts him in the thick of legal debate in the fast-moving industry of new media.
"Information technology and services constitutes one of the largest segments of our economy," says Vradenburg '67, "and has the potential for huge impact on the world economy and culture. At present, there are around 4,000 independent Internet service providers, and a couple of million Web sites. Never before, in the history of the world, has there been such a rich array of information available."
Vradenburg recently finished his first year at AOL, the nation's largest online network with more than 11 million subscribers. He brought to AOL years of experience dealing with regulatory and public interest issues, copyright, libel, and other legal matters in the TV and movie business. In fact, Vradenburg's career has encompassed all three of the industry's legal hubs: L.A., D.C., and New York. From 1980 to 1991 he was senior vice president and general counsel for CBS Inc. From 1991 to 1995 he was executive vice president of Fox Inc. He then went into private practice at the L.A. firm Latham & Watkins, where he cochaired the entertainment, sports, and media group.
At AOL, Vradenburg has handled the acquisition of CompuServe Inc., AOL's chief rival, adding over two million subscribers worldwide. He has filed suit to uphold AOL's ban on "junk" e-mail and prevent bulk- e-mailers from clogging subscribers' mailboxes. In December he attended an industry-wide "online summit" in Washington, D.C., that addressed the problem of child pornography on the Net and promoted training of law enforcement officials in the new technologies. Vradenburg is also involved in public debate over the industry's role in protecting privacy, freedom of speech, and intellectual property in the virtual world.
One of the toughest issues, he says, is addressing AOL's responsibility for online content. "AOL is a gated community. If someone posts content that is illegal and AOL learns of it, we must advise law enforcement and work with them. And if the content is only offensive or not otherwise illegal, we require adherence to our own community standards."
Although a recent Supreme Court decision struck down the controversial federal Communications Decency Act, thereby confirming First Amendment protections in cyberspace, Internet service providers still face the prospect of other forms of government regulation, as in TV and radio. "There's ongoing conversation between the industry and the government regarding electronic commerce policy making," says Vradenburg. "Industry wants to avoid government intervention, and is taking up the challenge to create a market-driven approach toward development of electronic commerce."
Since going public in 1992, AOL has grown from 200,000 members to its present 11 million plus. There are about 700 million Web "hits" a day on AOL, and close to 22 million pieces of mail travel over its networks every day. "AOL members now spend an average of 45 minutes daily on line across the service, versus 14 minutes a year ago," Vradenburg says.
Some still complain about subscriber overload and inadequate access. Indeed, when Vradenburg joined AOL it had just settled a class action suit with disgruntled subscribers over unsatisfactory Internet connections. But AOL is dealing rapidly with its growing pains, says Vradenburg, and is adopting strategies for delivering more services faster through new technologies.
Vradenburg cochairs the HLSA Committee on Sports, Entertainment, and Cyberlaw. He recently hosted a committee gathering at his house, with the help of his daughter Alissa, an associate in entertainment law. "I'm very proud of my daughter, who is just entering this legal melee and dealing with the entertainment industry in her own distinctive style," Vradenburg says. -- Julia Collins