Commentary

Hypocrisy In Action? AT&T's Attempt To Clear Air On BT

AT&T today confirmed to Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) that it has worked with behavioral targeting company Audience Science to advertise AT&T products and services to Web users since 2005.

"Audience Science is one of a number of online marketing firms that assist AT&T in reaching potential customers and placing AT&T's advertisements on other website," writes chief privacy officer Dorothy Attwood.

But Attwood's response is more notable for what it doesn't say. Eshoo had asked whether AT&T has asked advertiser partners "to be transparent to consumers about their data collection and use practices." That question was clearly in response to AT&T's public position that all companies that engage in behavioral targeting should first obtain users' explicit consent.

The telecom's slick answer: "AT&T has not just called on its advertising partners to improve transparency and control for consumers. Rather, we have called on the entire online advertising ecosystem -- including advertising networks, search engines, ISPs, advertisers and publishers -- to adopt a unified, consumer-centric policy framework built on a foundation of transparency, consumer control, privacy protection, and consumer value."

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That's all well and good, but one would think that AT&T would have more leverage to call on a company it hires, like Audience Science, than the overall online ad ecosystem. In fact, if AT&T is in a position to persuade any company to change its policies, that company would be Audience Science. Yet nothing in AT&T's answer suggests that the telecom has even hinted to Audience Science that it should do more to notify Web users about behavioral targeting.

To be clear, there's nothing illegal about Audience Science's practices. The company, like many other cookie-based ad networks, notifies users that it tracks them anonymously and serves them targeted ads. Audience Science also allows people to opt out of such ads at its own site and via the Network Advertising Initiative.

If AT&T hadn't so vocally criticized cookie-based behavioral targeting, its relationship with Audience Science wouldn't have become an issue. Apparently, however, AT&T is content to espouse that opinion without actually trying to implement it.

2 comments about "Hypocrisy In Action? AT&T's Attempt To Clear Air On BT ".
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  1. Tony Nino from PADV Pasadena Advertising, May 13, 2009 at 8:08 p.m.

    AT&T (aka Pacific Bell, aka Southern Bell) seems to have taken on some of the discredited business practices of the old AT&T of yore, what I call the gingerbread man ethic. "You can't catch me..." and if you do, I'll change the subject.
    "Behavioral Targeting? Moi??"
    "Look at the shiny rabbit!"
    Thanks for peeking under that skirt. Double speak is easy to miss, if one's not paying attention.
    Tony

  2. Jeffrey Chester from CDD, May 14, 2009 at 10:17 a.m.

    AT&T doesn't appear to have a firm commitment to protect consumer privacy online. In its letter to Rep. Eshoo, AT&T says that "Audience Science does not use deep packet inspection technology, but does use cookie-based method to develop a view on the types of advertisements that consumers might find most relevant or useful, and to assist advertisers and website publishers, such as AT&T, to deliver ads for products and services based on that view." In effect, AT&T is claiming that only deep-packet inspection methods raise critical privacy concerns for consumers. That's absurd--and AT&T clearly knows better. Cookie-based behavioral targeting techniques, especially in the social media marketing era, threaten consumer privacy. AT&T should have acknowledged that its own practices raise consumer privacy issues--and that it would immediately require opt-in for any BT-based methods. AT&T's spinning is setting the company up to be part of the problem--not the consumer-friendly solution.

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