Millions have cancelled their AOL subscriptions in recent years, but Barbara Borchers has remained a loyal paying member of the internet service provider since 1997.

Even after signing up with a broadband provider, the Kentucky retiree decided to pay AOL $14.95 (£8) per month, mostly to keep the email address she has had for almost 10 years, and because of her high opinion of AOL's technical support staff.

But Borchers is very close to joining the throngs of users saying goodbye forever to AOL. The reason? AOL's recent decision to, for the first time ever, display to its paying subscribers adverts along with email messages. "I don't want to switch to another email provider, but I will if they don't fix this so that these ads aren't there anymore," Borchers said in a phone interview.

She is not alone. In blogs, discussion forums and interviews, a number of AOL subscribers are loudly objecting to these ads, calling them intrusive, unsolicited, distracting and annoying. "These are animated ads. They blink on and off and carry on when you're trying to read a message. They're right there in your face," said Borchers, who began getting them last week.

Private hell

The banner ads appear below the email message read form, just like they have appeared for years below the AOL Mail inbox. However, for users such as Borchers, having them displayed along with email messages crosses the line. These people don't begrudge adverts elsewhere on AOL, but they feel that paying members should be allowed to read email messages in an ad-free territory.

Rebecca Monteiro, an AOL subscriber since 1997, also plans to cancel her membership. "These ads are almost the equivalent of having commercial music ads in the background of every telephone conversation," Monteiro, who lives in Louisiana and started seeing the ads on Monday, said in an email interview. "The worst part is that these ads are located on our private emails... the last place I'd expect or want to see an ad."

BJ Brooks, an AOL subscriber for over 10 years, has definitive plans to cancel his account. He has a broadband connection and kept the AOL account to hang on to his email address. "As a member I should be given the option to block [these] ads, should I desire," he said in an email interview.

No benefit

Like Brooks, Linda Shinsky has been an AOL member for over 10 years and keeps her membership active mainly for the email address, since she also has a broadband connection with another provider. Now she is planning to cancel as well. "Why pay for a service when there is no benefit?" Shinsky, a California resident, said in an email interview.

The ads are being shown to AOL subscribers using version 9.0 of the company's proprietary access software. AOL surveyed subscribers and found that displaying banner ads along with AOL Mail messages generally wouldn't bother them, an AOL spokeswoman said. The ads aren't being targeted to users based on the content of email messages, she said.

Users who cancel their AOL membership are given the option to move their AOL screen name to a free webmail account in the company's AIM instant-messaging service. Thus, their email address would have the format "old Screen [email protected]," she said. Mail sent to the old address will be automatically forwarded to the new one for free, she said. The subscriber's old inbox remains intact, with the old mail they have saved and their folders, as well as their address book, she said.