AOL revises privacy policy

Portal won't sell addresses, but it will track user activity to offer personalized content and targeted ads.

Elinor Mills Former Staff Writer
Elinor Mills covers Internet security and privacy. She joined CNET News in 2005 after working as a foreign correspondent for Reuters in Portugal and writing for The Industry Standard, the IDG News Service and the Associated Press.
Elinor Mills
2 min read
A correction was made to this story. Read below for details.

America Online won't sell or rent members' home addresses anymore, but under changes to take effect in November, it will track member activity on AOL.com and Web searches to offer personalized content and targeted ads.

The Web search monitoring will allow AOL to offer customized search results based on a user's past searches. Members can opt out on a search-by-search basis--or entirely, AOL said on Friday.

Other portals track how their users navigate around the Web site, AOL spokesman Andrew Weinstein said. AOL said it will not use any information about where members go on the Web when they are off the AOL service.

Other search sites are offering services that keep track of user Web searches. Yahoo does it, MSN said it plans to do it and Google applied for a patent on technology related to the practice, AOL said.

Two privacy experts gave the AOL changes mixed reviews, praising the halt to selling address lists, but complaining about the tracking aspects.

"Looks like a fairly standard privacy policy, with the usual weasel words and wiggle room where they say, 'We collect information about what you do on our service and we can use it for pretty much any business reason we can dream up,'" said Kevin Bankston, staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Weinstein pointed out that AOL's privacy policy--including not reading e-mail, monitoring members outside the service or selling personal information to other companies--limits the company's ability to gather and use member information.

Marc Rotenberg, president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said: "I'm glad they're not doing Gmail-like e-mail scanning and the fact that they're not renting their lists anymore is a positive. On the down side, customized searches are a real privacy problem."

AOL stopped sharing member address lists a year ago but decided to codify that move into policy in what the company said was the first significant revision to its privacy policy since 1998, Weinstein said.

The changes will be implemented on Nov. 10, AOL said in an e-mail to its more than 20 million members in the United States. The shifts will only affect U.S. users as the privacy policy is different depending on the country, Weinstein said.

AOL referred members to a frequently asked questions page and to a page detailing eight privacy commitments the company is making to its members.

Correction: This story misidentified the addresses AOL was renting. AOL rented users' home addresses.