The recent announcement that America Online was preparing to "clarify" the scary fine print in its EULA (End-User License Agreement) comes as welcome news -- maybe -- to anyone who worries about privacy on the Internet. But it is also a warning about just how stupid tech companies can be when it comes to preserving the trust of their users.
In case you didn't catch the brief flurry of postings in the blogosphere last week, someone actually read the fine print on the AOL Instant Message agreement -- and discovered that way back in February 2004 it had been amended to give AOL the right to "reproduce, display, perform, distribute, adapt and promote" any content it found on the popular chat service.
It is, by the way, telling how long it took anyone from the tens of millions of AIM users to actually spot the change. Most of us, I suspect, when we sign on to an online service or load a piece of software, see the fine print of the user agreement merely as a way to see how fast we can push the "Next" button. AOL, it would seem, took advantage of that indifference.
Needless to say, all hell broke loose with the discovery. AIM is, after all, the great public square of modern American teenagehood. I watch my 14-year-old sit at the computer and play games, download songs, watch videos, research his homework and study guitar tabs… all while responding, in two- or three-letter abbreviations (u?) to IMs -- mostly from girls -- that are popping up on the same screen at the rate of two or three per minute. And he's a guy; in the world of teenage girls, a single user may have a half-dozen personas and a buddy list numbering in the hundreds.
Multiply all that out and the numbers are staggering: an estimated 2.5 billion messages are AIMed each day. A reporter at Scripps Howard news service dug even further to find that all forms of messaging on all other services (Yahoo, MSN, etc.) amount to as much as 20 billion messages per day. In other words, instant messaging is the Ma Bell of our time, and a discerning analysis might suggest that AOL itself is merely bright wrapping paper around the real business of AIM.
Given all of that, why would AOL screw around with instant messaging? And why like this? If you want to scare away 10 million teenage girls -- and infuriate twice that many parents -- just announce that you are going to read their private correspondence, rummage through their diary and, if you find any juicy parts, publish them.
This is an idea so stupid and ham-fisted that only a corporate attorney, backed by an idiot or two in marketing, could come up with it. Having been in similar meetings over the years, I can guess just how the presentation went. The AOL corporate attorney announces that there are dangerous vulnerabilities in the current AIM contract, that Homeland Security or the FBI might come calling, demanding to see a certain message from a suspicious individual on a certain date.