AOL and the continuing adventures of the ‘free’ Internet

August 21, 2006

American Online, the aging Internet pioneer better known as AOL, has given new meaning to its name by unthinkingly putting some 658,000 Americans online in ways they neither sought nor welcomed.

Sometime in late July, company researchers posted roughly 20 million Internet queries that those AOL customers had made between March 1 and May 31 using the network’s search engine, which is actually Google rebranded.

It didn’t matter if you were trolling for information on “Dickens first editions,” “irritable bowel syndrome,” “hospice care in Tulsa” or “hand grenades.” Your searches had been noted and, in a remarkably obtuse move, were put up on a publicly accessible AOL research site so that other technorati could look for inconsistencies, correlations, possible improvements — whatever it is that techies look for.

True, no actual names were used. AOL listed its members only by numbers it assigned them.

But unearthing names wasn’t all that hard, it turns out. After all, Internet users often check for information about themselves, family, nearby real estate, local schools and the like. After bloggers blew the whistle on the voluminous posting, a New York Times reporter, with some modest sleuthing, identified customer 4417749 as a 62-year-old widow living outside Atlanta.

She was not amused that three months of her Internet activity  which included gathering information about illnesses her friends asked her to research  had been laid bare. “My goodness, it’s my whole personal life,” she told the Times. “I had no idea somebody was looking over my shoulder.”

Naturally, it was the exposure of information regarded as personal that triggered the most heated outcries about tattered standards of privacy. But the posting itself is easy to deplore. Nobody defends making the search records public, and AOL has groveled for forgiveness.

The more troubling question is why on earth the records exist at all. Why is AOL keeping information on every query — every keystroke, for all I know — that every one of its members makes?

“These logs represent the most secret hopes, deepest fears and dirtiest laundry of every user,” as Kevin Bankston of the Electronic Frontier Foundation said in a Wall Street Journal online discussion. “They provide a snapshot of incredibly intimate events and ideas, often revealing personal problems, financial difficulties, medical ailments, sexual preferences, and more.”

So what business is that of AOL? Or of Google, MSN or Yahoo, the world’s most heavily used search engines, all of which track their customers’ searches?

Welcome to the dark heart of the online economy, a dimly lighted place where the bills for the “free” Internet come due. Markham Erickson, head of NetCoalition, a lobbying group for Internet firms, hinted at this during the same online discussion: “Search queries are stored and used by Internet companies for internal purposes.”

Sure, AOL had no reason to let us see the records. But that doesn’t mean the company wanted to keep them to itself. Although AOL says it sought input for purposes of technical refinement, the reality is that records of searches are one of the Internet’s most precious currencies; they’re an essential lubricant in selling the targeted advertising that has become the foundation of the cyber-economy.

Only when Internet companies know just what you’re interested in can they sell space on your computer screen to advertisers whose offerings fit those interests precisely.

The Internet has emerged as the world’s first mass medium whose economic model is based on furtively compiling information about its users. You may go online looking to receive information, but it’s as an information provider that you’re welcomed and served.

Is that bad? That depends. It sure isn’t disclosed adequately. People routinely sign online consent agreements they haven’t read and quite possibly wouldn’t understand if they had. And the model leaves unanswered the question of whether the whole deal is a good one: Is the private information I give up about myself worth the information that Internet companies pay me with? And if not, how do I collect what I’m owed?

One irony of the current flap is that although AOL has been caught now with its hand in your informational pocket, it tried for more than two decades to create a network funded mainly by straight-up subscription fees. It recently gave up and announced it was switching the growing, high-speed portion of its customer base to a “free” network. And now we know what that means.

Correction: Last time, I implied that New York University professor Jay Rosen, an influential media theorist, is a fan of the user-generated content movement. He is not. Apologies. For Jay Rosen’s real views, see his Pressthink web site.

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