Most members, though, don't know that because other than posting new terms of service in an area that is not heavily trafficked, AOL apparently has not yet made other efforts to inform members of these and other changes to their terms of service (TOS). AOL's terms of service contain rules that outline everything from acceptable online behavior to its ability to sell member information.
The company already has taken heat from privacy experts and members alike for selling its members' names and addresses, along with personal profiles they obtain from other databases.
But few knew that AOL also has plans to sell phone numbers. "Once again, AOL is surreptitiously disclosing information about their customers without any notice," said David Banisar, staff counsel with Electronic Privacy Information Center, an Internet privacy advocacy organization.
"As an AOL subscriber, I received no notice. People are not disclosing this information so they can be bothered at dinnertime by telemarketers. They were disclosing information to AOL in case there was some sort of urgent reason for AOL to reach them, in case their credit card had been stolen."
In its new TOS (posted at AOL keyword: TOS), the company states that in addition to continuing its sale of member names and addresses, it also "may make the list with telephone numbers available to companies with which AOL has contractual marketing and online relationships for the purpose of permitting such companies to offer products and services over the telephone."
AOL spokeswoman Tricia Primrose said the company only plans to give phone numbers to companies such as CUC International, an online marketing firm that is paying $50 million for the privilege of selling and marketing its services to AOL customers.
AOL has been bringing in millions of dollars from companies that want to get in front of 8 million-plus service members. While the deals clearly give companies online access to AOL's customers, they may also be getting something marketers might consider far more valuable: contact information such as phone numbers that allow them to directly reach customers.
"We're not looking at this to give out member phone numbers to the universe," Primrose noted. "We are wanting to provide subscriber lists to companies with whom we have a contractual relationship."
She added that members can make sure their names and addresses don't go out to third parties by changing their preferences in the My AOL section.
Privacy advocates countered that they shouldn't have to take that step. In fact, Banisar said that Internet services are the only electronic subscriber services that are not prohibited from selling subscriber information.
Evan Hendricks, editor of Privacy Times, added that even if AOL only gives out phone numbers to companies like CUC, that still constitutes what he called a violation of privacy.
"CUC is a large and aggressive company," he said. "It all really boils down to notice and consent. They're basically doing what they want to do to exploit people's data, and they continually try to bury the notice in a place where few people are likely to look, instead of having a privacy box on their open pages."
David Cassel, an AOL critic and publisher of the AOL List, usually is apprised of even minute changes in policy. But he said he only found the new terms of service "by accident."
"I had a question about something else and I went to TOS. When I got there, I saw a small announcement that new provisions take effect in two weeks," he recalled. "Somewhere in the TOS they promise to advise members of coming changes. It hasn't happened yet. Since I write about AOL, I make it a point to track these things. Many AOL users might not realize they're bound by any new restrictions to the TOS and that AOL can change those rules at any time.
"If AOL's users don't mind phone solicitations, it's not a problem," Cassel added. "But I imagine many of them do mind, and they need to be made aware of AOL's plans to increase the phone solicitations they receive so they can make an informed decision."