AT&T In Bed With BT Company
In the last year, AT&T has emerged as an outspoken critic of online behavioral advertising practices. But the telecom itself is an advertising client of behavioral targeting company Audience Science, according to the ad company's Web site.
While many marketers work with online behavioral targeting companies, AT&T's apparent relationship with Audience Science is striking because the telecom has publicly said that behavioral advertising -- or tracking people as they surf the Web and serve ads based on the sites they visit -- requires consumers' explicit consent. Audience Science, like most behavioral targeting companies, allows consumers to opt out of targeting, but doesn't seek their affirmative consent to it.
AT&T Senior Vice President, Public Policy and Chief Privacy Officer Dorothy Attwood testified to Congress Thursday that the company believes that behavioral advertising requires "affirmative, advance action by the consumer." The hearing, held by a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee, was mainly focused on how network operators can monitor consumers using deep packet inspection and other technology.
But Attwood's testimony went beyond AT&T's role as a broadband provider and potential source of information about consumers. She also took the opportunity to distinguish AT&T's approach from that of older ad networks -- such as Audience Science. She said in her written submission that AT&T's model "differs materially from the default-based privacy policies that advertising networks and search engines -- which already are engaged in behavioral advertising -- currently employ."
Last summer, several lawmakers said they thought that broadband providers like AT&T needed to obtain consumers' explicit consent before selling information about their Web-surfing activity to ad companies like NebuAd.
Internet service providers, including AT&T, subsequently testified to Congress that they would not provide information about subscribers' Web activity without first seeking users' permission. But the companies also testified that they thought that other, older behavioral targeting firms should do the same.
Attwood leveled specific criticism at ad networks and search engines. "The largely invisible practices of ad networks and search engines raise at least the same privacy concerns as do the online behavioral advertising techniques that ISPs could employ," Attwood said last September in a written submission to Congress. "The privacy and other policy issues surrounding online behavioral advertising are not technology-specific."
Privacy advocates say that Internet service provider-based behavioral targeting poses more of a threat to consumers than older forms of targeting, because ISPs have access to all online actions -- including searches and visits to non-commercial sites. Older companies like Audience Science only have access to consumers' activity at a limited number of sites.
Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) attempted to ask Attwood about AT&T's connections with Audience Science, but misspoke and called the company "Audio Science" Attwood denied that AT&T had a relationship with Audio Science -- but also didn't recognize that Eshoo had intended to refer to Audience Science, which until recently was known as Revenue Science.
Attwood indicated in her answer that she believed "Audio Science" used deep packet inspection technology to serve ads, and when she indicated as much to Eshoo, the lawmaker did not explain that Audience Science does not use deep packet inspection. Attwood then said: "We do not use a DPI (deep packet inspection) solution to place ads."
A spokesperson for AT&T initially told Online Media Daily that the company does not use behavioral targeting. When told that Audience Science's Web site listed AT&T as a client, the spokesperson said he would investigate.
He did not offer further comment, but Audience Science's Web site had been changed by late Thursday, and AT&T's name no longer appeared as an Audience Science advertiser partner. However, a separate section of the site still had a testimonial from Michael Newel, media supervisor at MEC Interaction, stating: "We are extremely satisfied with our relationship with AudienceScience for our client, AT&T."