AOL clarifies IM privacy guarantee

Company admits its privacy policy was "inartfully" worded and is revising it to respond to concerns about IM privacy.

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
2 min read
America Online said late Monday that it plans to revise its user agreement in response to concerns that instant messages sent through the company's service could be monitored.

The new policy for AOL Instant Messenger, or AIM, will stress that the company does not eavesdrop on customer's conversations except in unusual circumstances such as a court order, an AOL spokesman said.

AIM's terms of service have been in place since at least February 2004, but nobody appears to have raised an alarm until a few days ago. Over the weekend, a brushfire of sorts flared among bloggers alarmed about six words embedded deep in the policy: "You waive any right to privacy."

That unfortunate wording was intended to apply to an AIM feature called "Rate-a-Buddy," spokesman Andrew Weinstein said. Like the classic HotOrNot.com site, Rate-a-Buddy permits AIM users to post photographs publicly so others can rate them on how "cute" and "interesting" they seem to be.

The Rate-a-Buddy language was "wrapped into" the AIM terms of service, and that "inartfully" worded phrase has been deleted from a new version that will be made public Tuesday, Weinstein said. "It's going to make it very clear that this section applies to public areas."

AIM's public areas include a few dozen public chat rooms, which cover topics from celebrity gossip to NASCAR chat. "We're making the language clearer so users understand it," Weinstein said. "At a minimum, there was significant confusion."

AOL's AIM Privacy Policy--referenced in AIM's terms of service--has long said that "AOL does not read your private online communications when you use any of the communication tools offered as AIM Products." The updated terms of service will include that statement, rather than referencing it.

Anne Mitchell, president of the Institute for Spam and Internet Public Policy, said it was a good sign that AOL was revising its agreement but that she would withhold judgment until she could read it. Mitchell, who writes a blog under the pen name "Aunty Spam," had called AIM's policy a "complete waiver of privacy."

"The way it stands right now is potentially a nightmare for users," Mitchell said. "It's great that they said they'll alter the terms of service so it's not that nightmarish. But until I see it, I won't be satisfied."