Congressional Internet Caucus and the State of the Mobile Net: Corporate Donors Influence Group’s Agenda, Leaving Public Vulnerable to Loss of Privacy

When will members of the Congressional Internet Caucus wake up and address the role its special interest dominated “Advisory” Committee is playing?  The Caucus is holding a “State of the Mobile Net” conference on April 23.  It’s doubtful Congress will be receiving the unbiased information they need, given that the sponsors of the event are the leading companies engaged in mobile marketing and data collection.  As typical of the “business model” crafted by the Center for Democracy and Technology connected group known as the Internet Education Foundation, the event prominently acknowledges its  Platinum” sponsors: the CTIA lobby group, Google, Microsoft and Verizon.  Gold” sponsors are AT&T, Nokia, T-Mobile.  There is also a category called “promotional” sponsors which lists Yahoo and several others.

It’s highly unlikely that the meeting will discuss the real issues challenging consumer privacy and welfare on the mobile Internet (including, we expect, the recent CDD/USPIRG complaint filed at the FTC– which has helped launch an investigation into that market).   The Advisory Caucus is run by the Internet Education Foundation, whose board members include representatives from Google, Verizon, Comcast, Microsoft, Recording Industry of America, and the Consumer Electronics Association. So the line-up of speakers is crafted to make sure that corporate donor feathers–and their willingness to continue to financially contribute–aren’t ruffled.  On the privacy panel for the event we have, of course, a representative from CDT.   There are also mobile marketers–including Yahoo and loopt.  There is the DLA Piper law firm that advocates for industry and a lone academic. Consumers and citizens deserve better from Congress.

PS:  As an example of how incredibly biased the Advisory Committee to the Congressional Net Caucus is, look at the description and speaker line-up of its recent briefing on online advertising.  A supposed “unbiased” event,  it featured industry lobbyists and several groups funded by online marketers!  Incredibly shameful!

Advisory Committee to the Congressional Internet Caucus

Anatomy of Online Advertising: Understanding the Privacy Debate
March 30, 2009…The purpose of the briefing is to provide an unbiased foundation for understanding the various privacy issues that Congress will debate in the context of online advertising.


* Paula Bruening, Hunton & Williams
* Maureen Cooney, TRUSTe
* Michael Engelhardt, Adobe Systems
* Tim Lordan, Congressional Internet Caucus Advisory Committee
* Jules Polonetsky, Future of Privacy
* Heather West, Center for Democracy & Technology
* Mike Zaneis, Interactive Advertising Bureau

A Mobile Marketer explains how they build a profile, including operator, geographic, demographic, search query data [Annals of Mobile Marketing]

Here’s an excerpt from an video interview we transcribed with Paran Johar, CMO of Jumptap (a mobile marketing company).  The interview was done at the Mobile World Congress, Barcelona 16-19 February, 2009:

“Journalist: You have a lot of intelligence built in to your engines in the back. How is that working together? How far down can you deep-dive in the targeting? How granular can you get?
PJ: Number one; Targeting is only important as long as you have scale and reach. So we need to kind of frame that out. Number two; we take inputs from various sources. So, we take operator data, whatever they want to pass to us, they can pass us. Certainly with AT&T we get geographic data from them, in some cases we get demographic data, we get search word query data, whether we are the search engine or if it is Google, Yahoo or Microsoft, that can get passed to us, contextual data and behavioral data. We take all that together and we score it, build a taxonomy to build a profile that will serve a relevant ad. We believe mobile phone is the most personal devices…
Journalist: … How much of an issue is the analytics now and are you positive and upbeat now that you feel that maybe mobile operators are getting their head around this to deliver it?
PJ: That’s a great point. A couple of things with the GSMA-Comscore UK trials. Number one, was absolutely wonderful that it fostered collaboration among operators for various audience segments. Number two, it was wonderful that they looked beyond just geographic, demographic, but they also include behavioral profiles in terms of their audience assessment. I also think it is very interesting that they are moving forward without actually being able to monetize this and building a platform so advertisers can participate in this. I think from a metric standpoint, the next thing that we are gonna look for is really standardization of post clip metrics and how to integrate that into
advertising campaigns.
Journalist: That’s an interesting idea. How do you envision that? How should it be?
PJ: It gets a little complicated but it shouldn’t be. In it’s simplest form you just have post-click, like a click to action. You click on the ad unit, you perform some action and it calls a pixel and you register that. But with mobile you obviously have different actions that can occur. It could be click to a map, it could be click to call, click to SMS. How do you track those actions? How do you then integrate them into a reporting structure, which is key. And we are building the tools to make it easy for media planners, agencies and clients to actually track all their actions holistically and then optimize their campaigns so that they are reaching their maximum ROI.”

Center for Democracy & Technology Goes for the “Gold” as it Raises $ for its “Gala” from AT&T, eBay, Microsoft, Google (and many other corporations)

CDT is having a “Gala Celebration” next month, supported by “Gold, Silver, and Bronze” sponsors.  AT&T, eBay, Microsoft and Google are listed at the $15,000 “Gold” level [“Two tables in Premium Location-Two tickets to the VIP Reception”]; Among the “Silver” sponsors [“One table-One ticket to the VIP Reception”] at the $7,500 tab include Time Warner (AOL), Dow Lohnes, Qorvis Communications (repping Sun, Cisco, etc), American Express, Verizon, Intel, US Chamber of Commerce, ID Analytics, Yahoo!, Arnold & Porter, IAC/Interactive Corp, Thompson LexisNexis, Hogan & Hartson (reps News Corp’s MySpace, among others), Comcast, and Sonnenschein Nath  & Rosenthal, LLP.   There are also a number of “Bronze” sponsor at the $1000 level [“One seat at a table”]. (CDT has a Facebook page on the event.)

CDT’s 2007 Gala, which honored Bill Gates, had “more than 900″ supporters” in attendance.

Progress & Freedom Foundation & Online Privacy: Looking at PFF’s Online Ad Industry [& Data Collecting] Funders

Two staffers from the Progress and Freedom Foundation (Adam Thierer and Berin Szoka) issued a quick response to the new FTC online marketing privacy principles.  In a press release announcing the short paper, PFF explains that:

Tighter regulation of the online advertising market in the form of privacy mandates, the authors warn, “would severely curtail the overall quantity of content and services offered—and greatly limit the ability of new providers to enter the market with innovative offerings.”

It’s interesting to consider what such “tighter regulation” of the online marketing might mean for the companies that fund the Progress and Freedom Foundation.  The list includes heavyweights of online data collection, such as Google, Microsoft, News Corp (MySpace and other Fox Interactive properties) and Time Warner.  PFF funders include monopoly ISPs which want to get into interactive data collection and online ad targeting big-time, such as Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon (other PFF supporters include a number of companies engaged in online ad targeting, such as Cox, CBS, NBC, etc).

Perhaps a good research project for PFF would be to examine the online data collection, analysis, and ad targeting work being done by its funders (including all the technologies being used).  We’d like to see the press release on that one!

Baby Steps for Online Privacy: Why the FTC Self-Regulatory Principles For Online Behavioral Advertising Fails to Protect the Public

Statement of Jeff Chester, Exec. Director, Center for Digital Democracy:

The Federal Trade Commission is supposed to serve as the nation’s leading consumer protection agency.  But for too long it has buried its mandate in the `digital’ sand, as far as ensuring U.S. consumer privacy is protected online.    The commission embraced a narrow intellectual framework as it examined online marketing and data collection for this proceeding.  Since 2001, the Bush FTC has made industry self-regulation for privacy and online marketing the only acceptable approach when considering any policy safeguards (although the Clinton FTC was also inadequate in this regard as well).  Consequently, FTC staff—placed in a sort of intellectual straitjacket—was hampered in their efforts to propose meaningful safeguards.

Advertisers and marketers have developed an array of sophisticated and ever-evolving data collection and profiling applications, honed from the latest developments in such fields as semantics, artificial intelligence, auction theory, social network analysis, data-mining, and statistical modeling.  Unknown to many members of the public, a vast commercial surveillance system is at the core of most search engines, online video channels, videogames, mobile services and social networks.  We are being digitally shadowed across the online medium, our actions monitored and analyzed.

Behavioral targeting (BT), the online marketing technique that analyzes how an individual user acts online so they can be sent more precise marketing messages, is just one tool in the interactive advertisers’ arsenal.  Today, we are witnessing a dramatic growth in the capabilities of marketers to track and assess our activities and communication habits on the Internet.  Social media monitoring, so-called “rich-media” immersive marketing, new forms of viral and virtual advertising and product placement, and a renewed interest (and growing investment in) neuromarketing, all contribute to the panoply of approaches that also includes BT.  Behavioral targeting itself has also grown more complex.  That modest little “cookie” data file on our browsers, which created the potential for behavioral ads, now permits a more diverse set of approaches for delivering targeted advertising.

We don’t believe that the FTC has sufficiently analyzed the current state of interactive marketing and data collection.  Otherwise, it would have been able to articulate a better definition of behavioral targeting that would illustrate why legislative safeguards are now required.  It should have not exempted “First Party” sites from the Principles; users need to know and approve what kinds of data collection for targeting are being done at that specific online location.

The commission should have created specific policies for so-called sensitive data, especially in the financial, health, and children/adolescent area.  By urging a conversation between industry and consumer groups to “develop more specific standards,” the commission has effectively and needlessly delayed the enactment of meaningful safeguards.

On the positive side, the FTC has finally recognized that given today’s contemporary marketing practices, the distinction between so-called personally identifiable information (PII) and non-PII is no longer relevant.  The commission is finally catching up with the work of the Article 29 Working Party in the EU (the organization of privacy commissioners from member states), which has made significant advances in this area.

We acknowledge that many on the FTC staff worked diligently to develop these principles.  We personally thank them for their commitment to the public interest.  Both Commissioners Leibowitz and Harbour played especially critical roles by supporting a serious examination of these issues.  We urge everyone to review their separate statements issued today.  Today’s release of the privacy principles continues the conversation.  But meaningful action is required.  We cannot leave the American public—now pressed by all manner of financial and other pressures—to remain vulnerable to the data collection and targeting lures of interactive marketing.

Bravo to Google for Supporting M-Lab. But How About a Tool That Also Exposes All Data Collection?

I applaud Google for supporting an academic initiative announced today that provides tools and other services to users so they can measure and test their broadband connection. These tools and effort will permit users to have greater insight into how their ISPs are shaping network traffic–it’s part of the important campaign to ensure network neutrality.  Google has been a leader in this area, and we commend them.

But Google should now use its resources to create a public tool for privacy, so that everyone can be informed about what kind of data is being collected from them–and who is collecting it.  That would mean identifying, for example, what Google collects for itself, for DoubleClick, YouTube, Feedburner and other services.  Of course, the tool would help consumers/citizens know about all data collection, not just via Google.  Beyond a new tool, Google should also support the passage of national privacy protection laws.  Google needs to also be a serious policy leader on privacy.   An open and unfettered connection is just one of the conditions global users require to ensure a democratic online medium.  So is meaningful privacy.

Google and Network Neutrality: Make Your “Open Edge” Proposals to the Telcos and Cable Companies Public

If the documents reviewed by the Wall Street Journal provide Google with “a fast lane for its own content,” critical questions are raised about its commitment to meaningful network neutrality.  The Google policy blog post suggests that the Journal misunderstood the meaning of the alleged negotiation documents.  What Google wants, they claim, is to develop an effective caching arrangement.  But there are legitimate critical questions that should be raised about the ultimate effect of a contractual deal which places  “servers directly within the network of the service providers.”

We believe Google is seeking this arrangement to ensure that its advertiser-based services, including so-called rich media applications, You Tube branded ads, and multi-media universal search applications, have priority.  We think the future of the democratic potential of the Internet is undermined when those with deep pockets can favor their content over others.  In essence, Google’s Fortune 1000 client base will get to jump to the head of the queue before non-profit, small business and civic applications.  We recognize that many applications use similar strategies.  But all this needs to to be fully publicly debated, especially given the incoming Obama Administration’s support for network neutrality and its own political connections with Google.

That’s why Google should make immediately public the proposals made to phone and cable companies.  Let’s thoughtfully review what they are asking for, understand the context, and engage in the necessary public discussion. Google needs to be forthcoming on this.

AT&T and a leader of its funded Privacy Forum Raises Questions About the Need for Safeguards

Those busy data collection bees at AT&T–including its funded Future of Privacy Forum co-head–appear to be working to undermine the growing movement supporting consumer privacy protection. According to a news report, a meeting was held last week at the University of Oklahoma on privacy issues. Forum co-director Christopher Wolf, whose law firm represents AT&T, is reported as placing behavioral targeting in a favorable light. Instead of calling for legislation, Wolf suggested that companies should create videos and other technical approaches to serve as supplemental privacy policies.

Also speaking at the event was Keith Epstein, “AT&T’s chief public policy and regulatory compliance counsel.” Here are the last two grafs of the story: There is no legislation pending in Washington regarding online privacy, Epstein said. A legislative solution if it did exist, he said, would be inflexible.

Epstein favored guidelines instead, and said the FTC should be issuing industry standards by the fall of next year.

AT&T’s stance on privacy legislation to protect U.S. consumers is troubling. It will have its deep-packet inspection, all-seeing ISP broadband clout, to monitor and then target each subscriber. AT&T should make it clear it supports legislation which provides real consumer protection (opt-in, transparency, control, extra protections on health, financial and youth data). Where is the privacy leadership at AT&T?

AT&T Positions itself for its (hoped for) Digital Ad & Data Collection-driven Era [Attention: Future of Privacy Forum group]

AT&T, like other companies, understands that online advertising is an intrinsic part of the broadband era business model (along with subscriber charges, transaction fees, etc.). A number of reporters, charming cynics as they may be, are convinced that AT&T’s recent calls for some type of opt-in is merely a form of Google bashing (it’s really Google envy!). But, as this trade story describes below, AT&T wants to better cash in on online ad revenues). It underscores why Congress must enact opt-in rules and other safeguards to govern ISP data collection, profiling, and targeting–especially across platforms. It also suggests a flaw in how the new AT&T supported Future of Privacy Forum envisions safeguards. They are quoted in The New York Times saying they want “to move the debate beyond opt-in versus opt-out,”–meaning self-regulation would rule–or ruin–the data driven day. Here’s an excerpt from CED magazine on AT&T’s new restructuring plan so Internet ads can play a more prominent role:

“AT&T’s Advertising & Publishing business unit has been renamed AT&T Advertising Solutions and is responsible for all of AT&T’s advertising sales, according to the company, to take advantage of advertising opportunities that cut across print, Internet, TV and wireless. Meanwhile, AT&T’s business unit has been renamed AT&T Interactive. That operation gets expanded responsibility for the development, management and delivery of online and mobile advertising products across all of AT&T’s media platforms. AT&T Interactive is responsible for online and mobile advertising inventory and offerings.”

source: “AT&T realigns ad operations.” Brian Santo. November 20, 2008.

New AT&T-funded “Future of Privacy” Group: Will it Support Real Privacy Protection or Serve as a Surrogate for Self-regulation and Data Collection?

A new group co-directed by former DoubleClick and AOL chief privacy officer Jules Polonetsky, called the “Future of Privacy Forum,” has been announced. It is connected to the law firm representing AT&T–Proskauer Rose–which has a considerable practice in the online marketing and data collection area. Other backers include Intel, General Electric, IBM and Wal-Mart.

We are concerned, however, that the role of the Forum is to help discourage Congress from enacting an opt-in regime for data collection. Both ISPs–such as AT&T, Verizon, Comcast and Time Warner–as well as online advertising companies such as Google/DoubleClick, Yahoo, and Microsoft must be governed by privacy laws which empower and protect consumers. The role of ISPs in any data collection for targeted online marketing, in particular, requires serious analysis and stringent safeguards. AT&T, Google, Microsoft, Comcast, the online ad networks, and social media marketers (to name a few) must be required to provide meaningful disclosure, transparency, accountability and user control (with special rules governing health, financial and data involving children and youth). Self-regulation has failed. If the Future of Privacy group is to have any legitimacy, it will work to support serious federal rules. But if it trots out some sort of voluntary code of conduct as a way to undermine the growing call for real privacy safeguards, this new group may soon be viewed as beholden to its funders and backers.