Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Senate Hears Testimony on Broadband Consumer Privacy

Executives from AT&T, Verizon, Time Warner Cable and a consumer group known as Public Knowledge testified before the U.S. Senate's Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation on the subject of broadband consumer privacy. Some highlights:

AT&T has no immediate plans to offer online behavioral advertising, stated Ms. Dorothy Attwood, Senior Vice President Public Policy and Chief Privacy Officer AT&T Services. Furthermore, she believes consumers should have more control over whether and how their online information is collected and used. If AT&T were to conduct online behavioral advertising, Attwood said the company would require customers to give their permission before it collects and uses their information. Customers would also have clear information about the information to be collected.

Online companies should commit to a list of industry "best practices" to protect consumers from potential problems associated with targeted Internet advertising - also known as behavioral advertising - when consumers surf the Web, stated Tom Tauke, Verizon executive vice president of public affairs, policy and communications. Verizon believes these best practices for behavioral advertising such include: (1) transparency - "conspicuous, clearly explained disclosure to consumers"; (2) meaningful consent - affirmative agreement from consumers before a company captures Internet usage data, when consumers surf the Web, for targeted or customized advertising; and (3) consumer control - ensuring that consumers can at any time act to stop any company from using their Internet usage information. Verizon is also calling for the establishment of a broad-based coalition of online publishers, search engines, Internet service providers, browser and application providers, and other online providers - along with representatives of consumer and privacy organizations - to adopt the industry best practices.

Time Warner Cable does not presently engage in targeted Internet advertising as an ISP or website operator, stated Peter Stern, Chief Strategy Officer, Time Warner Cable. Should the company start such a program, it would ensure subscriber privacy, said Stern, because "it is not only important as a matter of public policy, but it is also central to the success of our business." The company believes a set of industry practices based on consumer control, transparency, and disclosure should be adopted by all providers of targeted advertising, including ad networks, application providers and ISPs.

Deep Packet Inspection is the Internet equivalent of the postal service reading, stated Ms. Gigi B. Sohn, President and Co-Founder
of Public Knowledge. In submitted testimony, Sohn said that given DPI's potential to be used as an intrusive tool, we must first ask why the user's traffic is being collected or analyzed at all. Is the use of DPI integral to the functioning of the network or is the technology simply being used to provide the ISP with an additional revenue stream? She noted that not all uses of DPI are inherently problematic. The first widespread uses of DPI were for security purposes: to stop malicious programs like viruses and worms.

See also