Time Warner's (NYSE:TWX) AOL has made a few blunders over the years, but this week a pretty serious one has come to light. The company accidentally leaked search terms for a whopping 650,000 subscribers to the public, and that's got the Internet community all in an uproar. There's good reason for it, though.

It's bad enough that many newswires are disclosing some of the creepy search terms that some users have typed into AOL's search engine, proving something that most of us already know but might be reluctant to think about too much: Some creepy individuals use the Internet, and some people contemplate some pretty disturbing deeds.

However, there's another, bigger issue at hand, and it's one that's been contemplated before. And that's the relationship between Internet searching and privacy -- it's a rather tenuous relationship, it seems, and a controversy like this one makes it even more so.

That issue first raised its ugly head when Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) fought a government subpoena for search terms. AOL and Yahoo! (NASDAQ:YHOO) complied, and some indicated that Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) had as well. AOL's blunder puts the issue in sharp relief. We've all probably done weird random searches when gripped by idle curiosity about some odd (maybe even socially unacceptable) topic. And from an outside perspective, such search terms would often look pretty bad out of context.

For example, The New York Times interviewed a woman whose search terms were among those AOL displayed. And the article made the interesting point that while her search terms made it appear that she suffered from certain ailments, she was just searching those terms to help friends. It makes the point that the data can be extremely misleading.

Furthermore, a Forbes article pointed out that even though the users were tagged with anonymous numbers, it's not just that a collection of search data could possibly link back to identifiable users -- there are myriad other dangers, since some searches included such specific information as social security numbers. Not to mention, there's that guilty pastime some of us indulge in despite ourselves: ego surfing, the term for typing your own name into a search engine to find out what's been written about you on the Web. That pretty much gives it away right there.

The points I highlight here are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the commentary that's going around the Internet on the topic. The situation goes to show that Google was right when it resisted the government's request, and not just on principle: By protecting the data it collects, it's protecting its brand from the Big Brother stigma. On the other hand, while this is a big blow to AOL as it tries to recreate itself, it really highlights a significant risk to all the search services (and specifically, the fact that they store search data). You've got to wonder at what point people are going to feel uncomfortable about how much Internet search consists of others searching their lives for information.

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Microsoft is a Motley Fool Inside Value pick.

Alyce Lomax does not own shares of any of the companies mentioned.