TOC To err is human but AOL is diabolical. Your Turn

Some weeks threaten to turn me into the blogging brother of Buridan's ass (1). On the one hand beckons the challenge of unlimited government datatapping (2) and its attending Airport Syndrome. On the other the sudden creation of a planet middle class (3) by astronomers trying to buffer our elitist Earth from a riffraff of icy rocks entices one to further explore Internet-based recommendations. As I delay picking the better topic to another week, I am saved from writer's block by Karen W. Arenson who reported "What Organizations Don't Want to Know Can Hurt" (*).

Leaders are expected to prefer action over reflexion: asses some of them may prove to be, but not Buridan's asses. In itself Karen Arenson's understatement that "the leaders of corporations and other institutions [...] are not always hungry for more information" when faced with the aftermath of a disaster, goes well beyond the focus of my fillips.
But how could I overlook the fact that on the previous day AOL made its chief technology officer resign over the disastrous release of 20 million Web search queries from 650,000 individuals (see 08/15 fillip)? As quoted by Tom Zeller Jr.(**), a researcher, Eric C. Jensen, warned that such actions risk "making scapegoats out of people". Truth be told, the CEO of AOL, F. Miller, appears to be a perfect example for Karen Arenson's report. In view of this case however, the title of her article should have read: "What Organizations Don't Want to Know Can Hurt You".

Some readers will no doubt find me too harsh on AOL. First AOL never posted any names. All individuals were identified with anonymous ID's. Second, once it became obvious that an anonymous personal profile is an oxymoron, AOL removed the incriminating data and issued apologies as one would expect. Accidents do happen after all. Short of making a bold precedent by recognizing it had embezzled its customers' property and that by its nature the Internet make permanent any temporary release of information, what else could it have done ? Order some heads to roll ? AOL did that too. It fired two employees and its CTO resigned (***).

History is fascinating. But there is more to it than the Middle Ages. Recent history too is full of good lessons few bother to learn. Willfull ignorance may even become a field of academic study (*). What has this to do with AOL, will you say? Wait! There is a latin proverb, errare humanum est, sed perseverare diabolicum, according to which one may be excused for a mistake but not for repeating it. AOL stands here accused of willfully ignoring that giving employees access to private personal data will inevitably lead to privacy breaches and harm real victims. Enough of apologies, enough of scapegoating, enough of empty promises to do better next time! What is needed is a radical departure from current business practices.

Remember it was in 1998 that the story broke. 1998! At the time people were laughing me out of their offices when I dared suggest that Internet interactions could and should be both confidential and personalized without trading one for the other. Timothy R. McVeigh would have wished I had been heard. No, not the Oklahoma terrorist of infamous memory, but the Navy petty officer who was discharged from the Navy for "telling" about his homosexuality. Actually he had done it using an anonymous alias but his identity was disclosed by an AOL employee to the Navy investigator who had tracked down his Internet alias. For more details, please check out Janet Kornblum's contemporary reports (4)(5)(6).

Before going further, it should be stressed that AOL, as any media company, is operating under a permanent conflict of interest. Its economic model rests on selling advertising space and advertisers will not rest until they know all about you. Marius Meland reported on this conflict as early as 2000 (7), in particular quoting Jason Catlett, the founder of Junkbusters. By offering its services for free to consumers, AOL will be able to claim it has escaped from this conflict. While this is technically true, it will remain ethically dubious. AOL will continue to accumulate private personal data, a number of AOL employees will continue to have access to this data and some of this data will continue to leak from time to time either through a lack of judgment or in view of a lapse of ethics or simply to fullfill requests from the government and parties to lawsuits.

Yet solutions exist today which remove the need for an organization to gain access to personal private data in order to offer personalized interactions over the Internet, including for advertising, email and search services. AOL's CEO, no doubt, would rather not know.

Philippe Coueignoux

P.S.: Katie Hafner (***) writes about the dilemma faced by academic researchers who study Internet searching. I promise to address such legitimate concerns in a future fillip.

  • (*).....What Organizations Don't Want to Know Can Hurt, by Karen W. Arenson. (New York Times) - August 22, 2006
  • (**)..AOL Acts On Release Of Data, by Tom Zeller Jr. (New York Times) - August 22, 2006
  • (***).Tempting Data, Privacy COncerns, by Katie Hafner (New York Times) - August 23, 2006
August 2006
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