AOL Makes Online Privacy More Transparent

A recent U.K. study by AOL finds that most online users are concerned about their online privacy and about providing personal details to Websites. No surprise there. In fact, the study found that 84 percent of respondents said that "they would not give away income details online." What to make then of the fact that 89 percent of those same respondents actually provided the very same income details that they claimed they wouldn't give? Oops.

Apparently the perception of users does not always match the reality of the situation. Another example of this perceptual disconnect is that the study also found that 34 percent of respondents expected to experience credit card fraud as a result of their activities, but only 11 percent of respondents had actually experienced such problems. (Actually, we don't even like those odds: we have a one in 10 chance of being a victim of credit card fraud? No wonder we're paranoid!)

The respondents were also asked if they typically read sites' privacy policies. Only 38 percent said that they did. Of those that read the policies, half the respondents said that the information was not easy to understand. As to why people don't read the privacy policies, the two most popular answers were that it "takes too long," and there is "too much 'leagalese' or jargon."

Credit: Privacy Gourmet

This study comes on the heels of AOL's U.K. privacy education campaign (the U.S. version can be found here), which ironically is only loosely related to the study results. AOL's campaign is designed to educate online consumers of the how cookies can be used for targeted advertising and how users can opt-out out the targeted ad network of members of the Network Advertising Initiative (NAI). So while AOL's study focused on the conscious behavior of online users, the campaign is actually focused on educating users on how information about sites they have visited can be used by other sites, and how to opt out of this mechanism if they choose to. Of course, opting out of the NAI ad network partners only removes you from receiving targeted ads on sites with NAI ad network partners. Any non-NAI network ad partners are free to still examine your cookies. As many users do, you could disable cookies in your browser (or selectively enable them for only the sites you choose); but since the NAI opt-out program depends on setting a specific NAI ad network opt-out cookie for your browser, disabling cookies would disable the NAI ad network opt out mechanism.

Network Advertising Initiative

While the means might be inexact, AOL's intentions are in the right place:

"Personalising content and delivering relevant advertising online will only succeed for consumers and for advertisers if it is done in a trustworthy and transparent manner. In addition, business and government will need to offer approaches that recognise that at certain times personalisation and data use will be welcomed, and in other cases, users will demand limits on the use of their data." --Jules Polonetsky, AOL's Chief Privacy Officer.

The AOL privacy campaign includes relevant links to, a site that provides a "guide to deleting and controlling cookies"; a link to Polonetsky' own Privacy Gourmet Website, devoted to promoting online advertising transparency practices; and links to the privacy policies of related sites, including the one for AOL U.K. (AOL's U.S. privacy policy is here). It's refreshing to see a large online presence take a transparent stance on online privacy. Let's hope that other sites and companies follow AOL's lead and take similar approaches to treating your online privacy as a more transparent endeavor.