AOL says it listed, pulled Web searches

August 08, 2006|By BLOOMBERG NEWS

DULLES, Va. -- AOL LLC, Time Warner Inc.'s Internet unit, said yesterday that it inadvertently released three months of Internet search information from about 658,000 customers.

The data included 20 million keyword terms entered by users of AOL's software when they search the Web. The files were posted about 10 days ago at an Internet site for research by employees and academics and were removed Sunday night, Andrew Weinstein, an AOL spokesman, said.

"This was a screw-up, and we're angry and upset about it," Weinstein said. "It was an innocent enough attempt to reach out to the academic community with new research tools, but it was obviously not appropriately vetted, and if it had been, it would have been stopped in an instant."

AOL said the queries released represented about 1.5 percent of its 42.7 million search users, noting data from ComScore Networks Inc. The data posted included searches from March to May by U.S. users. While identities weren't included, search terms may contain personal information about individuals.

Shares of Time Warner, the world's largest media company, fell 24 cents to $16.32 yesterday on the New York Stock Exchange.

The incident underscores concerns raised by groups such as the Electronic Privacy Information Center, which say Web users risk disclosing personal information. Internet companies collect data on how customers use their Web sites for research and to improve their products.

Google Inc., the most used Internet search engine, fought and won a partial victory earlier this year in a battle with the Justice Department over disclosing users' search terms and Web addresses in its search index. Google was ordered to turn over 50,000 Web addresses but didn't have to turn over search queries.

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