AOL users must reiterate no-spam preferences

America Online's direct-marketing schemes are in the spotlight again as the company forces its members to jump through hoops to avoid receiving unsolicited junk email, or spam.

Jim Hu Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Jim Hu
covers home broadband services and the Net's portal giants.
Jim Hu
3 min read
America Online's direct-marketing schemes are in the spotlight again as the company forces its members to jump through hoops to avoid receiving unsolicited junk email, or spam.

A number of AOL users on Friday received a mass emailing from the online giant informing them that their "marketing preferences" are due to expire next month--just 18 months after the company unveiled new privacy and security policies ostensibly aimed at bolstering consumer protections.

Members were told they would have to respond to block direct-marketing offers after Dec. 8 even if they had already refused to accept such offers in the past. The Marketing Preferences section in AOL's proprietary service gives users the option of blocking any direct-marketing pitches--including pop-up ads, direct mail, email and telemarketing--from AOL's partners.

Although AOL's marketing preferences policies have existed for some time, they also have been the target of criticism from privacy advocates. Critics take issue with AOL's adherence to "opt out" marketing, which means members grant permission to direct marketers to send them email by default until they personally go to the preferences area and turn it off.

Such marketing tactics are a touchy subject in general. But some privacy advocates point out that, even by Web standards, AOL is pushing the envelope when it says that opting out once does not mean opting out forever.

"They've taken a giant leap backward by expiring people's clearly stated requirements," said Jason Catlett, a consumer advocate who operates a site called JunkBusters. "Most [Internet] companies do take no for an answer."

According to AOL, the company instituted the one-year expiration date policy when it revised its Terms of Service agreement a year and a half ago.

"This has been going on since the Terms of Service was...updated to be more comprehensive," said AOL spokeswoman Tricia Primrose.

But analysts, privacy advocates and some AOL users said they were not aware of the one-year expiration period.

"I think a lot of people are surprised," said Patrick Keane, an analyst at Jupiter Communications. "It's not a smart way to do business with consumers when you're going to quickly upset them."

Web sites hungry for new revenue streams haven't been shy about soliciting permission to collect personal information about users, which they can then sell to advertisers.

Users can agree to submit more information about their shopping preferences or allow a Web site to profile their online surfing habits. Web sites can then sell detailed user information to allow advertisers to target users that fit their demographic.

Web sites insist the arrangement benefits consumers by providing tailored advertising pitches on products and offers that people would like to know about. But most sites have been reluctant to require users to actively request direct-marketing pitches through so-called opt-in systems, presumably because fewer users would do so.

David Sobel, general counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, wonders whether the practice is just another example of AOL's aggressive marketing techniques.

"The question is, why is the default always to get the solicitations?" he said. "The average person is not going to go through the trouble, especially now if it becomes a yearly chore."