Broadband Providers Pledge To Protect Privacy

Byron DorganAT&T, Time Warner Cable and Verizon Communications vowed Thursday that they will not provide information about subscribers' Web activity to ad companies without first obtaining users' explicit consent.

Testifying at a Senate Commerce Committee hearing about broadband providers and privacy chaired by Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), representatives from the Internet service provider representatives said their companies had not deployed behavioral targeting techniques in the past.

While the broadband providers did not endorse any new regulations, representatives of all three emphasized that they would like to see all companies that engage in behavioral advertising--or tracking people online to serve them targeted ads--first obtain users' affirmative consent.

"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," Dorothy Attwood, chief privacy officer at AT&T, told lawmakers. "A policy regime that applies only to one set of actors will arbitrarily favor one business model or technology over another."

Peter Stern, chief strategy officer at Time Warner, and Thomas Tauke, executive vice president, public affairs, policy and communications at Verizon, also said they favored an opt-in approach for all forms of behavioral targeting.

Currently, many behavioral targeting companies allow users to opt out of receiving targeted ads, but do not affirmatively ask consumers to consent to being tracked.

Thursday's hearing marked the second time this year that the Senate Commerce Committee has examined whether behavioral targeting techniques violate users' privacy. The first hearing, in July, focused on start-up NebuAd, which was then purchasing information about users' Web histories from their Internet service providers and using that data to serve ads. NebuAd has since suspended plans to launch its broadband provider-based platform.

NebuAd said it did not collect users' names, e-mail addresses or other personal information, but privacy advocates were still concerned because Internet service providers have access to users' entire clickstream data. Given that trove of information, advocates say that broadband provider-based targeting is potentially far more intrusive than older methods, which only track users across a limited number of sites.

Advocates, and some lawmakers, also argued that federal wiretap laws prohibited Internet service providers from disclosing users' Web activity without their consent.

But the Internet service providers testifying Thursday said there was no reason why they should be subject to a different standard than existing behavioral targeting companies.

"The principles and best practices should apply to all online companies regardless of their technology or the platform used," Verizon's Tauke said in a written submission to the Senate.

The Network Advertising Initiative, a self-regulatory group that includes ad networks, disagreed. That group said after Thursday's hearing it endorsed opt-in consent for Internet service based-behavioral targeting, but an opt-out approach for network-based methods.

"We think that this is not a one-size-fits-all environment," said Network Advertising Initiative executive director J. Trevor Hughes. "There are fundamental differences between the business models here," Hughes added. "An ISP sees everything--everything with a capital E."

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