AOL’s history of not smartness: For those who have observed these things for a long, long time (and, frankly, I can’t recall why I have), AOL has a long tradition of doing really dumb things. So, its current blunder in releasing search data for “academic purposes” without considering the obvious result that people can sometimes deduce a searcher’s identity by the terms he or she uses is merely another milestone in a journey of stumbles along the way. One of the first I can recall — and it’s not the first is a 1996-1997 incident where the company could not keep up with its rapid growth and customers became enraged when they couldn’t get online. The attorneys general of 36 states ultimately settled with the company — part of the settlement was for AOL to stop advertising for new customers until they got their act together and could serve the customers they had.
Subsequent to that, AOL’s rises and falls are well-documented.
As much as I was happy to see him exit any decision-making at Time-Warner, one thing about Steve Case is this: he could always figure out a way to re-make AOL into something different when the company ran into brick walls brought on by changing technology or market conditions. (His skills for doing this did not apply to the combined media conglomerate he engineered, however.)
I think AOL has the ability to turn things around, somehow. However, I believe the current private-data fiasco is much bigger than AOL is hoping it is. While most lay-people did not comprehend the significance of recent controversies surrounding the potential for government security agencies analyzing telephone call patterns (although it was never fully confirmed that phone companies cooperated), this AOL blunder may do a service to those who would like to demonstrate to lay-people (non-techies) what type of information we share through the simple act of searching for something on the Internet — especially when people learn how easy it is to play detective.
(Note to the readers of this weblog who don’t follow geek things: If this is the first time you’ve ever heard the word Tor, remember you heard it on the rexblog first.)