AOL’S Oh-No!

By virtue of the fact that I have never been an AOL customer, I realize that might put me in the minority, but I’m happy to be in this camp based on the embarrassing events of the past few weeks at AOL headquarters in Dulles.

Earlier this month, AOL disclosed it has mistakenly put on a public web page, the results of search queries by nearly a quarter million AOL users. Granted those were anonymous customers but these results were supposed to only be made available to academic researchers who were going to use the data to develop some new search tools. Well, today the Red Herring is reporting that New York Times’ reporters were able to use the search information to track down one user. So maybe not so anonymous.

Other media outlets have predictably gotten involved, most likely fueled by motivations to further embarrass the Web giant. For example, Web site Valleywag published a regular feature, titled “AOL Creepy User Watch.”

Yesterday, AOL’s CTO Maureen Govern fell on her sword and resigned – she was only on the job for eleven months. Joining Govern were two other members of her team. Now, trying to clean up this mess, AOL has created – are you ready for this? a “task force” – ooh boy led by top execs Ted Leonis and Randy Boe to implement some new aka real privacy measures.

It gets better, or worse, depending on your perspective.

How does a world-class organization like AOL respond via its PR department?

How’s this for a professional response? — “This was a screw-up, and we’re angry and upset about it,” AOL spokesman Andrew Weinstein said shortly after the data was released (see “AOL Leaks Search Data”).

AOL can and must do better from their C-Suite to the privacy gurus in their labs all the way down to their communications department. If not, they can expect users to continue to look for safer, better alternatives for online content and communications tools. I for one, won’t be signing up for an AOL account anytime soon.

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