How Google’s New Privacy Policy Will Affect You While You Use AOL

Yesterday on my other blog I asked readers an odd question: “How will Google’s new all-in-one privacy policy affect people who use AOL’s search engine, since it’s “enhanced by Google”?” It’s a question no one’s asked – nor answered before. Without waiting for a response, I fired off two emails: one to AOL’s Privacy Team, the other to Google’s*. My email to AOL is as follows:

To whom it may concern,

I run an informational blog about AOL and am politely requesting an official response to the question, “How does Google’s new privacy policy affect users of AOL’s Google-enhanced search?” Are AOL users (especially those signed into AOL when they perform searches) subjected to Google’s new one-for-all privacy policy, which went into effect on March 1, 2012 and is described by Google here: http://www.google.com/intl/en/policies/privacy/?

If so, in what ways exactly are AOL users affected by Google’s policy changes?

Specifically, if an AOL user signs into AOL, for example, with the handle aoluser@aol.com while also signed into Google as, for example, googleuser@gmail.com, then conducts searches on AOL’s search engine, does Google collect information on aoluser@aol.com’s searches and tie them to googleuser@gmail.com’s account?

Any and all information you can impart on this important topic is appreciated. Thanks in advance for your time in this matter.

Sincerely,
Ms. M. Marie

And this is how AOL responded (with added emphasis my own):

Dear Ms. Marie,

Thank you for your inquiry about how AOL Search enhanced by Google may be impacted by Google’s privacy policy update. Currently, users who visit AOL owned and operated properties or use AOL products (such as AIM, Winamp, AOL Editions, etc.) are not affected by Google’s recent privacy changes, as AOL does not share individual user data with Google. Searches performed through AOL Search are transmitted to Google through an AOL-managed proxy. During this process, unique identifiers (including personally-identifiable information, cookie IDs, AOL usernames, email addresses, full IP addresses, etc.) are removed by the proxy before being submitted to the Google search API. AOL users that choose to consume Google products (e.g. Gmail, Google Toolbar, Google Maps, etc.) while connected to the Internet via the AOL software will be affected by Google’s privacy changes – just as they would be with any other Internet Service Provider.

We are committed to continuing to work closely with Google to ensure we are providing transparency to users of AOL Search. As AOL continues to innovate and develop new products and features, including functionalities from other service providers, we are committed to providing appropriate information and options to our users. Please visit http://privacy.aol.com for the most up to date information and options for the treatment of your AOL information.

Should you have further questions regarding AOL’s collection and use of information, please feel free to contact us at this email address [privacy@aol.com].

Regards,
AOL Privacy Team

In plain English, I think what AOL means is: it doesn’t matter if you’re signed into AOL or Google (or both) when you use AOL search, because all data transmitted by AOL to Google 1) goes through AOL’s proxy servers first, which strips out most of your IP address (and stripping out your IP address, folks, is good, because Google also collects info on you based solely on the IP address you search and use Google on, without even signing in!) and 2) your data is so anonymized by the time it gets from AOL’s proxy servers back to Google’s machines that no one at Google could reliably tie it to your AOL or Google account, anyway.

So now you know that using AOL Search (“enhanced by Google!”) is nearly as good at protecting you from Google’s new privacy policy – which is seen by vast swaths of the Internet as highly intrusive and not privacy-enhancing at all – as searching Google without signing in using any proxy you’ll find on Proxy.org (which is like, a whole list of proxies, dudes…seriously, check them out).

*Google has not yet responded to my request for clarification.

Wow, Internet: hi. Yes indeed: AOL’s Classic home page is gone again.

If you know where the damn page is this time, let us know – leave a comment!

It’s perfectly bizarre to check your stats maybe once a month like I do and expect to see the normal 100-200 visitors a day but instead see there’s been almost 1600 – in under 36 hours. I mean, I don’t even update this thing. Even more bizarre? Looking at both referrer and search term stats, I can’t figure out where the heck ya’ll are coming from, but I’m uh…in shock that you went and found me, regardless.

Missing in action: an entire AOL home page. Whoops!

AOL Classic home page: missing in action - again!

It’s suddenly become as contagious as a rash for people to find AOL’s Classic home page, so, to judge by my stats, which are positively smothered in search terms such as “aol classic”, “classic aol homepage”, “http://www.aol.com/?backtoclassic”, “aol classic homepage”, “http://www.aol.com/?src=classic”, “back to classic aol homepage”, and “aol.com-classic”, I’ll assume that’s what most of you are after.

Here, let me make it easier on ya’ll – you’re welcome!

The AOL Classic home page is gone. Yessiree. Again. In honor of the amount of visits I’m getting – 125 an hour, which is a lot for this stupid blog – I’ve looked around the wild and wooly interwebs figuring it’s somewhere (and knowing AOL’s devs, it’s either live or on their Intranet, but still kickin’ around) but I can’t find a working link to it just yet. AOL waved their super-secret magic wand to make go poof! sometime yesterday, August 25th, according to Google’s last cache of aol.com, but put no new link in place that anyone can find to restore the Classic look for their apparently very loyal users.

FYI: this link will no longer give you the Classic look: http://www.aol.com/?src=classic. The link works, but brings you to that artsy-fartsy bullshit AOL has in place now. I even ran the link through this tool to make sure there were no cloaked 301 redirects in place, but there’s not. The only redirect AOL has in place is for the non-www version of that page, which permanently points to the www version. If anyone knows how to get to AOL’s Classic home page, please let us know!

Hi AOL, Primcapital.com seems to be hijacking/mirroring the entire AOL.com site!

Oh, boy, how one thing always leads to another, especially with AOL.

Tonight a reader asked how to access the AOL Classic home page (the answer is you can’t, because AOL Classic is gone).

Once that was sorted out (I told her to use http://netscape.aol.com instead – it’s ugly, but it’s basically the same thing), I tied up a few other loose ends on this blog, then – you know how I always get bored – so I usually go trawling through search engines to see what trouble I can find, since trouble doesn’t bore me? OK.

So tonight I’ve won the “un-bored” jackpot. Using the search terms (with quotes, exactly as you see it) [“aol” “back to classic” “developer network”] – which were two links at the bottom of the AOL Classic home page] I got this as the third result: http://www.primcapital.com/default_003.html.

Clicking the Prim Capital link takes you to an identical copy of the AOL Classic home page. Every link you click on that page brings you to another hijacked AOL page on Prim Capital’s servers. Curious as to whether AOL owns Prim Capital or not, I looked it up and, nope, apparently not!

But that’s where my gumshoeing stops. I have got to get to bed!

Have fun, AOL – I wash my hands of this little phishing attack or whatever it is you have going on with the Prim Capital people (but if I owned AOL, whoever runs Prim Capital wouldn’t be able to say their names without speech synthesizers by tomorrow morning – just sayin’).

Oh, and if you’re a reader who uses AOL? PLEASE DO NOT VISIT THE PRIM CAPITAL SITE. IT IS NOT AOL! YOU MAY GET PHISHED OR GET YOUR IDENTITY STOLEN! HERE BE DRAGONS! ETC.

8 Myths About AOL

There are lots of stories going around about AOL lately. Let’s clear some of them up.

  1. Myth #1: AOL no longer sells dial-up access.
    False. AOL still sells dial-up and BYOA (Bring-Your-Own-Access). The good news is, AOL is down to 4 million subscribers from an all-time high of 25 million subscribers in 2005, with more subscribers fleeing each month.
  2. Myth #2: AOL does nothing but provide dial-up and BYOA access.
    False. AOL does much more. AOL recently thought it was an ad company, but now thinks it’s a media company. Access is something AOL doesn’t “focus” on anymore, because most of AOL’s customer service and tech support calls are handled by employees in India, and the infrastructure for dial-up practically runs itself.
  3. Myth #3: AOL still blankets the US with CDs.
    False. AOL does limited distribution of CDs by bundling them with Dex phone books or by sending them to certain bloggers, but other than that, the days of waiting breathlessly for your next coaster are over.
  4. Myth #4: The name “AOL” is now written out as “Aol.”.
    False. The new “Aol.” moniker is a prime example of “branding”, like how I changed my blog’s name a few years ago, to improve my, um, “brand”. I’d prefer if you call my blog “Anti-AOL” now, but if you still call it “Marah’s AOL Log”, that’s OK, too. It wasn’t a legal name change, and neither was AOL’s. You can write its name out however you want. I prefer “AOHell” and “Aolol”, myself.
  5. Myth #5: “Aol.” is a meaningless brand meant to catch your eye and nothing more.
    Well, yeah. But, no, not technically speaking. False. Supposedly, when you choose Aol., you choose the best brand for your lifestyle. (I know…the whole idea makes me sick, too.) So you don’t visit a blog on AOL; you visit “blog.Aol.” Adding the “Aol.” appendage makes you seem smarter and cooler (or, if you’re old school, l33t3r) than the rest of us.
  6. Myth #6: “Aol.” is pronounced…differently, so how do you pronounce it?
    False. You pronounce it the same way.
  7. Myth #7: It is still impossible, damn it, to cancel your AOL account.
    False. You can cancel your paid or free AOL account simply by filling out the online cancel form, unless you live in Washington, DC (AOL programmers forgot to let the District of Columbia in on the magic).
  8. Myth #8: I can cancel your AOL account for you, if you just leave me a comment anywhere on this blog saying something snotty like, “Do away with my service”.
    Hello people, let’s get real: I can’t do that, OK? But the good news is, I think these people can.

Last US Postmaster at AOL Leaving This Friday

I was afraid to believe it, so I emailed the person in question to be sure, but before she could reply (that was only 5 minutes ago) I found a post that confirms that Annalivia Ford is the last Postmaster left at AOL, and unfortunately she will be leaving this Friday (I ran across the news on a Twitter search for “aol sucks”, go figure).

It’s unclear what will happen once Annalivia is gone, but from what she writes on her blog it looks like AOL India will take over US Postmaster operations. Annalivia, as her final parting act, has done a nice re-working of the Postmaster at AOL site, modernizing the layout and adding contact forms for various webmaster issues, including not being able to send or receive email from AOL users.

The website renovation was actually completed last December (it’s hard to believe it’s been that long since I looked at the Postmaster site, but it has) and was not done by Annalivia alone. I’ve updated my AOL Contact Info page to reflect these changes.

3-3-2010, 2:56PM: Annalivia lets me know what’s going on.

By email, she has informed me that:

It’s been getting more and more difficult as we lost more and more staff. On Jan 13, AOL laid off everyone remaining on the US Postmaster team except me and a programmer. At this juncture, the way to contact AOL Postmaster is through the website I linked from my blog. I truly regret not being able to give you a better answer. Thank you for your kind words on your site – the website was in fact my last big project. My manager and I wanted to create a testament, something useful to leave behind.

Be well.

Annalivia Ford
Senior Technical Account Manager
AOL AntiSpam Operations

3-3-2010, 3:51PM: In a sudden fit of good journalism, I finally thought to ask Annalivia if…

She got laid off. It’s the most obvious question but I forgot to ask! So I emailed her again. She very kindly responded with:

I accepted a different position at another company. The joy went out of my work with the loss of my team. Now, I’m off to do something totally different and …no more layoffs :)

It must be very demoralizing to see your entire team laid off and to know you’re the only one left. I can’t imagine what it’s like for one person to do the work of an entire department, nor what it must feel like to lose friends, close contacts, and possible mentors on your team. In almost every work situation I’ve been in, I wouldn’t have cared if they took away my boss, but take away my coworkers? It’s unthinkable. I do wish Annalivia the best of luck in her new career.

The One That Got Away

You can call the author of this blog many things, but please don’t call her “unaware”. Call her, rather, “Incapable of seizing the moment”. Why? Because TechCrunch broke a story that even wound up in the Washington Post about Chinese AOL coming up in Firefox as a possible attack site/forgery (that’s right, a phishing website) on Feb. 13th, but they were not the first to learn the perfectly jaw-dropping news. In fact, I was.

I was fixing dead links on this blog on Feb. 10th when I got to my AOL Hit List and clicked through to Chinese AOL out of sheer curiosity. At that point, I was met with the same warning page that you didn’t find screen shots of on TechCrunch until 3 days later.

Chinese AOL under suspicion as far back as Feb. 10th

My screen shot shows that I could’ve broken this story (without the help of Mike’s tipsters) 3 days before TC did. It would’ve done wondrous things for this blog’s stats. It’s no one’s fault but my own, but I admit I’m extremely sore now about passing on the story, and shocked at just how large it became.

Continue reading…