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
"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
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
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."