DoubleClick Inc. may be the current target of Internet privacy worries. But when it comes to tracking online habits, few companies are in a stronger -- or trickier -- spot than America Online Inc.
The online service keeps records on more than 21 million subscribers, including names, addresses and credit-card numbers. Although AOL says it doesn't watch users' travels on the World Wide Web, its system automatically tracks their movements within AOL's service -- including chat rooms, e-mail and news services -- where users spend 85 percent to 87 percent of their time online.
"AOL is probably sitting on a bigger wealth of information about consumers than any other entity," said Jeffrey Minsky, director of media convergence at WPP Group Plc's OgilvyOne, a New York ad agency.
That data could bring huge revenue if AOL packaged it for sale to retailers, banks, insurers and others dying to know which AOL customer is most likely to snap up their products and services.
Cautiously walking a line, AOL says it has never sold data about its members' movements within its system.
AOL could gain another rich source of data when it completes its proposed acquisition of Time Warner Inc. The media giant has information on the reading and listening habits of the 65 million households that receive its books, magazines and compact discs. Indeed, privacy was a major concern of lawmakers at recent Senate hearings on the deal.
Some rival online providers track subscribers' movements and sell what their surveillance turns up.
For instance, NetZero Inc., a provider of free Internet access, creates thorough profiles about users partly by tracking where they go online.
In a delicate balance of privacy and profits, AOL has opted thus far to focus on attracting and keeping paid subscribers, who in turn draw advertisers to the largest Internet audience. If AOL began selling detailed information about subscribers, it could risk a user backlash and regulatory review.
Just look at DoubleClick, the big Web ad-placement company that helps advertisers track users' online behavior. The Federal Trade Commission is investigating the company for potential privacy violations. DoubleClick says it has done nothing wrong.
NICK WINGFIELD AND GLENN R. SIMPSON, , March 20, 2000, THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
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