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AT&T Promises To Do ISP-Based Behavioral Advertising 'The Right Way'

The Congressional Committee on Energy and Consumer Privacy began investigating the behavioral advertising activities of Internet Service Providers (ISPs) after reports surfaced that ISPs were selling consumers' data to third-party tracking companies. The Committee sent letters to 33 telecommunications companies inquiring about ISP-based behavioral advertising programs.

I've focused on the letter from AT&T for several reasons. First, I have local, long distance, and wireless phone service with AT&T. Second, AT&T is a major player in the telecommunications sector. Third, when I worked at Digitas LLC, AT&T was one of the clients I performed online web site project work for over several years.

I encourage consumers to read the response letter from the company you do business with. At some future date, it may be appropriate to switch service providers if they implement behavioral advertising in an inappropriate or consumer-unfriendly way.

The response from AT&T about ISP-based behavioral advertising, included the following:

"AT&T does not engage in the behavioral advertising that is the focus of your inquiry, specifically the tracking of a consumer's overall web search and web browsing activities -- by tracking either the person or a particular computer -- to create a distinct profile of the consumer's online behavior... We are aware that certain companies have conducted trials of next-generation behavioral advertising technologies and techniques. AT&T has not conducted any such trials."

More importantly:

"But because Overall Behavioral Targeted Advertising goes beyond the simple practice of "targeting" limited to a consumer's use of individual or related web sites,and involves the more invisible practice of tracking consumer activity across countless unrelated web sites, it has unique implications for consumer privacy. For these reasons, if AT&T deploys these technologies and processes, and we have yet to do so, it will do so in the right way, after full and careful consideration of the relevant issues, and with a particular focus on what we believe are the pillars of any business practices that involve customer information:

(1) give consumers control over the use of their information;

(2) ensure transparency;

(3) protect consumers' privacy; and

(4) give consumers value."

These four principles are an excellent start for ISP-based behavioral advertising (and apply to web browser cookie-based behavioral advertising). They are consumer-friendly and provide a good foundation. I wish that AT&T's statement included principles about data security, and the company's arrangements with third-party vendors and outsourcing. Then, it would habe been a complete list of principles.

I was curious about AT&T's reply letter since AT&T operates ISP services through multiple entities depending upon where in the USA the consumer lives: DSL service, dial-up Internet services, satellite Internet service, and fiber-to-the-home Internet and TV service. The service AT&T provides varies based on whether the consumer lives within a state that historically was served by BellSouth or SBC, since AT&T acquired both companies during the past decade. AT&T's response would have been more transparent and accurate if its response letter had disclosed these multiple ISP entities. Given this patchwork-quilt of services, any behavioral advertising opt-in (or opt-out) mechanism for consumers is even more critical.

We shall see if AT&T honors its promise and all four of the above principles. I hope so and expect them to. I hope that other companies and the FTC follow AT&T's lead.


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