Tuesday, August 08, 2006

AOL -- Not Too Swift

AOL has been in the news lately. First, it is nearly impossible to quit -- there is a exasperating audio clip of someone trying to quit that is making the blog rounds. I had a free account that AOL tried to charge me for, and my call with them (which I didn't record, unfortunately) was a lot longer than the encouters referenced above.

Next, they released the search logs of 650,000 users (initial reports were 500,000, but it was worse than that) to the "research community." This was quickly retracted. For the short time it was up, however, there were a lot of people looking through it, with some very interesting findings.

What can we learn from this?

First: AOL does not care about its users. To them, users are not customers, but are fodder for their real customers, the people who buy advertizing from them. This has been true since they mailed their first "free" floppy disk years ago.

Second: There is no privacy on the internet. Period. As Scott McNeally said, "get over it." Please assume that all emails, searches, and everything else you do is open to the world. Online banking and most commerce from reputable companies are relatively safe, but there are still real risks, and even then, you must assume that a company will not keep secret your buying a stun gun or mace or something of that nature on line.

Third: This is a corollary to number 1: Quit AOL. They do not deserve to be in business. Period. More importantly, you deserve to have a real internet, not some fake "big brother" cocoon. Who do I recommend? I recommend getting cable or DSL from the likes of AT&T or Charter, and only use them for access to the internet. Go to Earthlink for dial-up, if you are in the sticks. Get your email address from a free service like Yahoo, or Gmail, or, better, get you own domain and email account from GoDaddy. I use their service for all my domain name registrations. There is too much good stuff out there for AOL to be your option.

Fourth: There are some sad and lonely people in the world. Looking through the AOL searches is like looking into someone's diary -- it is creepy, and it feels like you are looking at something that is better left alone.

Five: It is a good idea for all search engines to stop logging searches. Why should they? The only reason is for dubious marketing reasons -- ways to know what is "in the mind" of the user so that you can pitch more directed ads to them. But for logs of the detail that AOL kept - that is bad news. I did not expect better from AOL, but it is a drag to have your worst assumptions realized.