AOL clears path to use Web bugs, cookies

An addition to its privacy policy paves the way for the company to use online tracking tools to compile anonymous data about its members and measure advertising.

Jim Hu Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Jim Hu
covers home broadband services and the Net's portal giants.
Jim Hu
2 min read
A recent addition to America Online's privacy policy clears the way for the company to use online tracking tools, including cookies and Web bugs, to compile anonymous data about its members and measure the effectiveness of advertising.

"AOL and its advertisers may use cookie technology to determine on an anonymous basis which advertisements members have seen and how members responded to them," the policy reads following an Aug. 28 amendment. "AOL and its advertisers may also use small pieces of code called 'Web beacons' or 'clear GIFs' to collect anonymous and aggregate advertising metrics, such as counting page views, promotion views, or advertising responses.

"AOL does not allow advertisers or their advertising networks to use these technologies on AOL to compile profiles about the different Web sites that a particular member visits."

Company spokesman Andrew Weinstein said the AOL Time Warner division has not yet begun using cookies or Web bugs but could do so. He added that the company would not use the technology to track user behavior. Rather, the cookies and bugs would only be used to figure out how many people viewed a certain type of advertisement.

"We do not allow these technologies to track what members are doing on the Web or on the service, nor do we allow any organization to build profiles about our members," he said.

The presence of cookies and beacons, also known as Web bugs and clear GIFs, would be a first for AOL, but remains a common element around the Web.

Cookies are bits of software that a Web site places onto one's hard drive, allowing it to store personal information such as passwords and screen names. Web bugs are pieces of code embedded into a site's source code that can track user behavior while on the site. Bugs can also be used to create profiles of site visitors. Some marketers have used such profiles for targeting purposes, which makes some privacy advocates nervous.

In fact, the debate over Web bugs has become an industrywide issue. The Network Advertising Initiative in the beginning of this year launched a program to develop a standard for using Web bugs. The group, which represents online advertisers, is seeking feedback from the Federal Trade Commission.

From the privacy perspective, Web bugs raise concerns because they have the ability to offer detailed information about what each visitor does on the site. But in this case, AOL may use them as another way to count traffic and other types of bulk data, according to privacy experts.

CNET Networks, the publisher of News.com, also makes use of Web bugs, a practice disclosed in the company's privacy policy. According to the policy, CNET does not "aggregate or track personally identifiable information when using clear GIFs, only usage patterns."

"Web bugs have many, many uses, and AOL seems to lay out what they're looking for," said Richard Smith, chief technology officer for the Privacy Foundation. "They simply want to count how many unique visitors go to Web pages."