AOL faces FTC complaint over search data release

Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
Declan McCullagh

The legal and political fallout from AOL's publication of some 650,000 users' search histories continues.

On Monday, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the digital rights group in San Francisco, filed a complaint against AOL with the Federal Trade Commission.

The 11-page complaint (PDF) alleges that AOL violated federal laws prohibiting "deceptive trade practices" because its privacy policy said no such mass disclosure would take place.

AOL's privacy policy says "network information" of its users generally won't be shared with third parties. It defines network information as: "Depending on how you use the network, your AOL Network information may include... information about the searches you perform through the AOL Network and how you use the results of those searches."

The "may" language could give AOL some wiggle room. Also, search data is an unusual creature: it can in some circumstances identify an individual, but not usually. For its part, AOL says it is conducting an internal investigation of its own.

Firing off a complaint to the FTC is pretty easy (much easier than filing a lawsuit against a company) -- all EFF needed to do is summarize some news articles and allege violations of a privacy policy.

Still, some FTC complaints have caused companies real grief. Just ask Microsoft about changes it made to Passport. Or DoubleClick.