Letters to Hill on Online Advertising and Privacy: A Failure to Communicate

The two headlines coming from the responses sent to the House Energy and Commerce Committee so far are that trials of deep packet inspection ad tracking/targeting were launched without meaningfully informing subscribers, and that the companies really failed to fully disclose all the data collection and targeting they routinely do.

On the second point, a strategy by several companies was to gloss over what they collect from behavioral targeting. You would never know reading AOL’s letter, for example, that it acquired behavioral targeting leader Tacoda last year [which is now integrated into AOL’s “Platform A” system]. AOL’s letter to the Hill is a fairy tale version of the targeting it can do. To see a video produced for AOL’s Advertising.com that is more honest about its ability to collect and target, see its “Holy Grail of Online Advertising” animated promo.

Charter Cable, which was working with NebuAd until advocates and Congress raised the alarm, suggests for whatever online ad services it does on its website, it relies “on third-parties, such as Yahoo and Google to perform these functions.” But it promotes its vehix.com site saying that: “More leads. Better leads. Precise geographic and demographic targeting. Unparralled branding power. Vehix.com isn’t just another dot.com vehicle site. Vehix.com is a powerful new way to combine the targeting precision of Cable TV and the internet to create a powerful sales building program.” Comcast answers the Congress by repeatedly claiming that it doesn’t target individuals online. It could have included in its letter what it says to potential advertisers, that: “On a monthly basis, Comcast.net receives over 3 billion page views, 15 million unique users, average visit length of over 14.9 minutes and over 60 million video streams. Comcast.net Mail Center has over 20 million registered accounts, 7 million logins per day and over 2 billion page views a month.” None of the cable companies, of course, said a word about their coordinated moves into personalized interactive television ad targeting (Project Canoe). Insight cable could have included in its letter a section from its privacy policy, which says that:“Our Website may post banner ads or other forms of advertisements and/or links from third party advertisers that are not owned or operated by Insight or Insight Entities. These third party advertisers may independently solicit and collect personal information, or send their own tracking devices to our visitors. Other third party Internet programs or applications may also cause additional advertisements or banner ads to appear on top of our web pages. Insight does not have control over the placement of such advertisements or the tracking devices utilized through these applications. When you visit a third party advertiser’s Website, you will be subject to the privacy policy and terms of usage agreement of that Website operator.”

Of course, the tests by CableOne, CenturyTel, and Knology reveal the failure of the current disclosure process. Customers shouldn’t be required to read complex and confusing legal updates about privacy policy. The lack of candor from Google, Yahoo, Verizon, Comcast, etc. should be addressed by the companies quickly supplying new information to Congress about their complete data collection and targeting practices and plans.

Author: jeff

Jeff Chester is executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. A former journalist and filmmaker, Jeff's book on U.S. electronic media politics, entitled "Digital Destiny: New Media and the Future of Democracy" was published by The New Press in January 2007. He is now working on a new book about interactive advertising and the public interest.

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