The Internet is pretty scary these days. I wish I could say that it was always a treat, but more often than not, you encounter plenty of tricks while surfing the Web.

One of the biggest concerns a user must be consistently vigilant about is the constant threat of viral infections. There's a whole software industry dedicated to fighting such threats, featuring major players such as McAfee (NYSE:MFE) and Symantec (NASDAQ:SYMC). Time Warner's (NYSE:TWX) America Online division is acutely aware of this cyber-cultural reality and has a plan for exploiting it.

The Internet service announced plans yesterday to provide free antivirus capabilities to subscribers. The next upgrade of AOL software -- due in November -- will have the McAfee Virus Scan Online application at the user's disposal, defending the whole computer against all the nasty sundries out there, such as worms and Trojans. It'll even scan CD-ROMs and floppies.

This offering wasn't always free; members previously had to pony up a monthly fee for it in addition to the bill for the AOL service itself. In many ways, this is the most significant attempt made by AOL to stop the defections it's seen in its subscriber base and to improve its brand equity. Adding different content offerings, supplying radio channels, and enhancing the instant-message experience by making goofy emoticon images are all well and good and do make a difference, but an initiative like this really snared my attention, since there is such intrinsic utility here; the need for protection, after all, is incontrovertible.

I recently purchased a new computer and was coming up very close to my installed antiviral software's expiration for new updates; I would have had to pay out of my pocket for continued access to the privilege (in fact, with my previous Dell (NASDAQ:DELL) PC, I put off getting protection once the expiration came for longer than I care to admit).

Thankfully, I have been saved from such an indignity. AOL has just literally added value to my continued patronage, and perhaps others will feel the same way. Of course, competitors such as Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) and EarthLink (NASDAQ:ELNK) have read the release as well, and will surely respond to this action. But as everyone knows, an odd inertia sets in for certain consumers in regards to switching Internet providers; perhaps people who were thinking of ridding themselves of AOL but never got around to the hassle of actually doing so will now perceive an excuse to stop thinking about such a measure due to the new upgrade's important feature.

Anything to retain members is a good thing for AOL, which has been a high-profile weak spot for the Time Warner conglomerate. I have written before about troubles with my AOL service, but I should note that two very nice gentlemen from the company contacted me and assisted me with getting a better connection; thus far, I have to say, I have seen a dramatic improvement with my sessions. AOL still has a long, long way to go towards improving its reputation in my opinion, but I think shareholders will be watching to see how the promotion of the upcoming upgrade clicks (or doesn't click) with consumers.

Both Time Warner and Dell are Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendations.

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Fool contributor Steven Mallas owns none of the companies mentioned.