No it doesn’t

Spreading like wildfire across the blogosphere this weekend is the news that AOL’s terms of service for its Instant Messenger service have been changed to give them the right to use your messages and denies you any right to privacy. It’s all over the place: Boing Boing, MetaFilter, Slashdot, TUAW. The originator of this story appears to be Ben Stanfield (MacSlash’s acaben) who posted about it on Friday.

There’s only one problem with the story. It looks like it’s completely full of shit.

From the comments to Ben’s blog entry, someone identifying himself as AOL spokesman Andrew Weinstein wrote the following:

The rumors flying around the blogosphere about the AIM Terms of Service are totally false.
First and foremost, AOL does not monitor, read or review any user-to-user communication through the AIM network, except in response to a valid legal process. The AIM privacy policy (which is part of the AIM TOS) makes that crystal clear:
“AOL does not read your private online communications when you use any of the communication tools offered as AIM Products. If, however, you use these tools to disclose information about yourself publicly (for example, in chat rooms or online message boards made available by AIM), other online users may obtain access to any information you provide.”
The second sentence of that same paragraph — and the related section of the AIM Terms of Service — is apparently causing the confusion. The related section of the Terms of Service is called “Content You Post” and, as such, logically and legally it relates only to content a user posts in a public area of the service.
If a user posts content in a public area of the service, like a chat room, message board, or other public forum, that information may be used by AOL for other purposes. One example of this might be a user who posts a “Rate a Buddy” photo and thus allows AIM to post it for other AIM users to vote on it. Another might be AOL taking an excerpt from a message board posting on a current news issue and highlighting it in a different area of the service.
Such language is standard in almost all similar user agreements, including those from Microsoft and most online news publications (MSN excerpted below). That clause simply lets the user know that content they post in a public area can be seen by other users and can be used by the owner of the site for other purposes.
Finally, there seems to be a misimpression that the change was recently made. In fact, the current AIM Terms of Service was last updated in February 2004 and has been in place for more than a year. The prior terms of service had very similar language reserving the same rights.
In short, AIM user-to-user communication has been and will remain private, the AIM TOS was not changed, and the TOS includes a standard clause on publicly posted material.

In other words, the controversial wording was about message-board posts, not instant messenging, and is a function of the service provider being able to let other users see your posts.

Ben got it wrong: he read the terms of service, jumped to conclusions about what it meant, and began posting about it. (He did his best to promote it: he submitted it to Slashdot and later posted it himself to MacSlash.) And the bloggers and Internet cognoscenti, who’ve raised paranoia about corporations to an art form, were all too willing to swallow a story that, on its surface, was quite absurd — as though AOL could put several million iterations of “l8r d00d” to nefarious use!

This is not the sort of thing that gives bloggers journalistic credibility. On MacSlash, Ben said that he “broke the news on the story.” Bullshit. Any real reporter would have called up AOL and asked whether this was in fact the case. Jumping to conclusions because you can’t read a legal document is common enough — you wouldn’t believe some of the crazy interpretations of wildlife conservation law I’ve heard from reptile hobbyists, for example — but it’s not breaking a news story. If you’re going to start a public campaign against a popular service, it’s probably not a bad idea to check your facts first.

Ben got it wrong, full stop. And now people are running around telling each other to stop using AIM. That’s not likely to abate any time soon: correcting the record is going to be extremely difficult, and several of the places where this is posted aren’t likely to do it.

Update 3/14: eWeek covers AOL’s denial.