Customers of America Online Inc. soon may be getting unwanted phone calls from telemarketers thanks to a decision by the computer service company to sell the telephone numbers of its 8 million subscribers to its marketing partners.
The new policy is revealed in a revised service contract for AOL customers. All users of the service must agree to the contract when they first sign up. But the contract runs to about 14 single-spaced pages and routinely goes unread by customers. In addition, AOL can change the terms of the contract at any time. The company told customers that it was making the changes effective July 31. But AOL didn't offer a simple listing of key changes in the new contract. Only someone who read both the old and new contracts in their entirety would be likely to notice the difference.That's what David Cassel did. Cassel, of Berkeley, Calif., is a free-lance writer and AOL critic who publishes an Internet newsletter featuring attacks on the company's policies. While researching AOL's policy on copyrighted material, Cassel read the new service contract and stumbled across the plan to sell customer phone numbers.
Cassel says he's outraged that AOL hasn't specifically notified its 8 million users about the policy change. "Should they inform the members? Absolutely," said Cassel. "It's slimy not to."
David Banisar, staff counsel of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, said the AOL plan shows that the federal government should limit the customer information that Internet service providers can sell to other firms. Banisar supports a bill introduced in the House of Representatives by Minnesota Democrat Bruce Vento. Under the Vento bill, AOL and other Internet providers would need permission from a customer before selling that customer's personal information to anyone.
But AOL spokeswoman Tricia Primrose said that the new AOL policy is no threat to customers' privacy. For one thing, only marketing firms with contractual relationships to AOL can purchase the data. "We are not providing member telephone numbers to any telemarketer who wants them," said Primrose. "What we are doing is providing telephone numbers to companies that we are partnering with."
For example, AOL recently announced a partnership with CUC International Inc., a Connecticut-based marketing firm. CUC will sell products to AOL subscribers through an online shopping mall. Primrose said that AOL will sell customer phone numbers to CUC for use in that company's telemarketing efforts.
In addition, Primrose said that AOL has always planned to notify customers before beginning the new policy. All AOL subscribers will be able to ask the company not to share their phone numbers.
Ironically, AOL is currently in court battling with mass-mailing firms to protect its customers from unwanted junk e-mail.