Forbes.com - Magazine Article
Parmy Olson, 08.08.06, 2:00 PM ET
Just as Time Warner's AOL unit is reaching out to try to get more users by providing services for free, the Internet service provider has
''This was a screw-up, and we're angry and upset about it,'' AOL spokesman Andrew Weinstein told The Associated Press. ''It was an innocent enough attempt to reach out to the academic community with new research tools, but it was obviously not appropriately vetted, and if it had been, it would have been stopped in an instant.''
The information was
In the file, AOL used serial numbers in the place of users' screen names. However, who were keen to see what has been written about them on the Web.
According to SiliconBeat.com, the queries listed for one user included "shore hills park mays landing nj," "frank william sindoni md," "ceramic ashtrays" and "transfer money to china".
This sort of information is . That's where the company's latest gaffe could hurt most, says Forrester Research analyst Shar VanBoskirk. "The big concern now is that AOL will make less money from advertisers because people won't be willing to share info about themselves," she notes.
The information that AOL revealed is essentially the same type of data that the U.S. Department of Justice demanded from the company and its search competitor Google in March. While AOL complied with the government’s request, Google refused to make the disclosures, and a judge eventually ruled that the company did not have to hand over search requests.
A change in perception of AOL's brand could be detrimental. "AOL has branded itself to be a user-friendly doorway to the Internet, particularly for older people," says VanBoskirk. But, she added, older people are the ones who are more sensitive about privacy violations and the Internet generally.
"In an environment where search engine loyalty is already difficult to tie down, something like this is only going to push people to use other search engines."