The trigger of interest for Rep. Markey (D., Mass.), chairman of the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and Finance, was a recent print ad offering for sale a list of the computer service's subscribers, including demographic, income and other information. The list, promoted and administered by List Services Corp., Bethel, Conn., asked $100 per thousand names.
"As you know, in the Information Age, more and more personal information will be available in an `online' environment, from health information, financial information and spending patterns to other digital data," Rep. Markey wrote in a letter to Steve Case, AOL's president-CEO. "For this reason, I feel strongly that comprehensive privacy protections must become part of the electronic ethics of companies doing business on the information highway and a fundamental right of all its travelers."
Rep. Markey asked Mr. Case to respond by Oct. 11 to seven questions, including what information AOL had made available for sale, how much money AOL has made selling its lists and whether subscribers were informed of the possibility that their information would be reused or sold.
Earlier this year, Rep. Markey sponsored legislation aimed at providing protection to network users. The legislation, yet to be adopted, would have required that companies amassing customer databases tell consumers that such information was being collected and allow them to prohibit their names and data from being sold.
In a statement, Mr. Case said AOL "fully support[s] the privacy provisions as outlined in Congressman Markey's letter today, and we believe we are fully compliant with them." If needed, he added, "We will pull the list off the market until this issue can be satisfactorily resolved."
Consumer privacy is a key issue for builders of the information infrastructure.
Half of the respondents to a new survey from Louis Harris & Associates said they would be interested in getting personalized advertising on interactive services. But half also said they would be at least somewhat concerned by the use of consumer purchasing and demographic data to send such personalized messages. Seventy percent said they'd like to indicate what information on their subscriber profile could be used for marketing purposes.
The phone survey of 1,000 adults was conducted for Privacy & American Business and has a margin of error of 3 percentage points.
"We found these safeguards were most important to the people who are also most interested in interactive services," said Joy Sever, VP at Louis Harris.
Debra Aho Williamson contributed to this story.