The real digital TV transition: Why TV “Advanced Advertising” [aka Project Canoe] Raises Privacy & Consumer Protection Concerns

The cable and telephone industry have Google envy.  These broadband communications giants recognize that online advertising companies such as Google and Yahoo have created an enormous market for themselves through the delivery of online ads.  Comcast, Time Warner, Verizon and others want to use their Bush Administration-given broadband monopoly status to gain a significant share of this market.  Cable giants are also working together to transform television so it can better compete with online, and target viewers with more precision and in-depth ads.  The goal–for cable, phone and online ad companies–is to eventually provide a seamless system that tracks, profiles and targets us across every “screen,” including TV, PC and mobile.

Comcast is heavily investing for such a viewer/user tracking world.  It has plans, according to the trade publication Multichannel News to create a “gigantic database called “TV Warehouse,” able to store a full year of statistics gathered from digital set-tops in more than 16 million households nationwide…TV Warehouse, envisioned as having a massive 500 Terabytes of storage, would then feed up to a database even broader in scope operated by Canoe Ventures, the advanced-advertising venture formed by Comcast and five other large MSOs.  The idea: to give advertisers an enormous set of actual viewing metrics — showing exactly what millions of cable customers watched and when — as opposed to representative samples.”

Not surprisingly, Comcast’s Brian Roberts has said his company should no longer be viewed as merely a provider of television:  “Over the last few years we have successfully transformed Comcast from a cable company into a new products company that utilizes one infrastructure to deliver a growing number of products.”  Advanced Advertising, which is what the cable industry’s technical consortium known as CableLabs calls it, is one of the major products Comcast and others will soon provide.  According to CableLabs, “Advertising is growing in importance for cable operators. CableLabs is currently supporting activity in four areas designed to create new revenue opportunities around advanced advertising technologies. These areas are digital ad insertion, interactive advertising, reporting, and addressability.”   Cable executives are working with advertising companies to “…agree on a valuation metric. What’s a click worth?”

But the core concern with Advanced Advertising is the tracking of viewers, including the use of internal and outside databases for targeting. Comcast Spotlight, for example, offers marketers access to a broad range of databases for more precise targeting. Acxiom offers cable and other providers a host of database segmentation services, including its Personicx VisionScape. “With PersonicX VisionScape, marketers have at your fingertips real-time access to a wealth of information… that can help them understand more about their customers – what type of products they use, their purchasing behaviors, their channel and media preferences.  The PersonicX household-level segmentation system is built with InfoBase-Xâ„¢ data and places almost every U.S. household into one of 70 distinctive segments and 21 life stage groups based on specific consumer behavior and demographic characteristics.”

Cable’s work to create a more powerful viewer data collection and targeting system has been out of public and policymaker view.  Cable engineers have been working  together to perfect the technology that will allow it to merge “content and subscriber metadata for targeting zones (or, in a unicast environment, for targeting individuals) to bring the right ad to the right consumer at the right time.”

The phone and cable companies, knowing that the 1984 Cable Communications Act contains privacy safeguards for interactive TV ads and aware of the current debate on behavioral targeting, claims that such data collection and targeting will be anonymous and could include an “opt-in.”  We don’t believe any cable or phone consumer is being told the extent of the plans underway to track and target them.  For example, Alcatel’s product for IPTV related advanced advertising explains that:
“To capture the full revenue potential of targeted and interactive advertising, IPTV providers need to ensure that the following critical actions are addressed:

  • Capture and measure — The network must be able to collect “opt-in” subscriber information from a broad range of databases, which advertisers will use to reach specific “targeted” markets. This anonymous data includes usage patterns, subscriptions, demographics, location, presence and preferences — including how, when and where advertising messages are delivered, along with the type of device that is used. In addition, accurate measurement capabilities are needed that can verify audience response and track the effectiveness of ad campaigns…
  • Activate and interact — Finally, this data, combined with the right systems and infrastructure must be able to deliver personalized and interactive ads to the right consumer, at the right time.”

Consumers/subscribers should decide whether such an advanced system can target them at all.  Beyond informed consent (and data security), there need to be clear safeguards.  Targeted ads for financial, health, and products aimed to children and adolescents raise consumer protection issues.  I have real concerns about “ethnic” profiling, given how lucrative advertisers realize the Hispanic and African American markets are.  We believe that the cable industry has to engage the public in a serious debate about the scope and goal of its Project Canoe and advanced advertising initiative.  Congress, the FCC, and the FTC must become more proactive to protect our privacy from this new approach.

PS:  This week’s Multichannel News offers insight into the latest developments.  Here’s an excerpt:  “This year, the largest cable operators in the U.S. plan to have upgraded at least 20 million digital set-tops with code to run standardized interactive-TV applications. That will make it possible for viewers to click a button on their remote to, say, ask an advertiser to e-mail them more information…The industry over the last two years has coalesced around a common technical standard, maintained by CableLabs, referred to as Enhanced Binary Interchange Format, or EBIF (pronounced “EE-biff”)…Comcast, for one, claimed it had deployed EBIF user agents on more than 10 million Motorola set-top boxes by the start of 2009. The operator hopes to complete the rollout to its entire Motorola footprint, about 20 million boxes, by midyear…” [Interactive TV Begins to Bloom.  Todd Spangler.  Multichannel News.  March 3, 2009].

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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