AOL Responds to AIM Privacy Concerns

Changes made to the terms of service for AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) raised a hubbub last week among Internet bloggers who claimed AOL had stealthily added provisions that infringe upon the privacy of its users.

Privacy advocates quickly caught wind of the reports, leading to a firestorm of speculative criticism. In response, AOL has provided some answers to extinguish the fire by dismissing the "mistaken rumors" as being false.

The terms, which were last updated in February 2004, grant AOL ownership and unfettered use of all content generated by and passing through AIM.

"You waive any right to privacy. You waive any right to inspect or approve uses of the content or to be compensated for any such uses," the terms read. "All right, title and interest in any compilation, collective work or other derivative work created by AOL using or incorporating this [user] content."

The statement that sparked the most controversy was: "In addition, by posting content on an AIM Product, you grant AOL, its parent, affiliates, subsidiaries, assigns, agents and licensees the irrevocable, perpetual, worldwide right to reproduce, display, perform, distribute, adapt and promote this content in any medium."

AOL has compared the language found in the AIM terms of service to industry user agreements that inform users about how content posted in public areas can be viewed by others, deeming it "almost standard."

For instance, a "Rate a Buddy" photo posted to the service infers that the user grants AIM the rights to post the photo for others to vote on, or AOL taking excerpts from bulletin boards about current events for use on its services. Some examples of similar TOS were cited from Microsoft's MSN business unit and the Houston Chronicle.

Hoping to provide some clarity an AOL spokesperson emphasized, "First and foremost, AOL does not monitor, read or review any user-to-user communication through the AIM network, except in response to a valid legal process. The AIM privacy policy (which is part of the AIM TOS) makes that crystal clear: AOL does not read your private online communications when you use any of the communication tools offered as AIM Products."

"If, however, you use these tools to disclose information about yourself publicly (for example, in chat rooms or online message boards made available by AIM), other online users may obtain access to any information you provide," the spokesperson added.

It is AOL's position that communication over the service "has been and will remain private," and that changes in the user agreement's legalese do not mean changes in the overall terms of service.

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