Responding to increasing Internet privacy concerns, AT&T, Verizon, and Time Warner, the country’s largest ISPs, told a Senate committee during a hearing Thursday that they don’t engage in online consumer tracking and want to self-regulate such practices in the future.
The hearing focused on whether ISPs are tracking their customers’ Internet usage and selling that information to advertisers, an industry practice known as behavioral targeting.
To be sure, controversy regarding consumer privacy on the Internet and Web ad tracking has been a source of contention for years. But ISPs are pointing the finger at online advertising companies as the main culprits.
“Most companies that provide services on the Internet are presently under no obligation to disclose or obtain consent for the collection and use of consumers’ online usage information,” said Peter Stern, executive vice president and chief strategy officer for Time Warner Cable, in his testimony. “And in the case of some of the largest ad networks and application providers, the amount of information such companies possess dwarfs that obtained by ISPs.”
The most recent brouhaha surrounding the issue came earlier this year involving NebuAd, a company that monitors ISP customers for ad-targeting. The largest ISPs have denied any involvement with the company. However, Charter Communications, the fourth largest ISP in the country, came under fire after it was disclosed it was considering working with NebuAd. The deal was scrapped, but not before it came under the scrutiny of Congressmen Ed Markey (D-MA) and Joe Barton (R-TX) of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.
At the Thursday hearing, the ISPs said they want to maintain transparency and become clearer about opt-out options.
“Verizon believes that before a company captures certain Internet-usage data for targeted or customized advertising purposes, it should obtain meaningful, affirmative consent from consumers,” said Tom Tauke, Verizon executive vice president of public affairs, policy and communications, in his testimony. “Meaningful consent requires transparency, affirmative choice and consumer control, ensuring that consumers can at any time act to stop any company from using their Internet usage information.”
To ensure such measures and head off possible government intervention, Tauke recommended that the industry band together and form a coalition centered on best practices.
“To achieve this, we plan to work with stakeholders in the Internet and advertising arenas, including other companies, industry groups and policy organizations,” he said.
Dorothy Attwood, AT&T’s senior vice president, public policy and chief privacy officer, agreed.
“We believe these principles offer a rational approach to protecting consumer privacy while allowing the market for Internet advertising and its related products and services to grow,” she said in her testimony.
It seems that such measures come at a critical time. The Consumer Reports National Research Center released poll results Thursday that found most Web users in the country are very concerned about online privacy.
According to the poll, 82 percent of consumers are concerned about their credit card numbers being stolen online, while 72 percent are concerned that their online behaviors were being tracked and profiled by companies.
Although 68 percent of consumers have provided personal information in order to access a Web site, 53 percent are uncomfortable with Internet companies using their e-mail content or browsing history to send relevant ads and 54 percent are uncomfortable with third parties collecting information about their online behavior.
The poll revealed that 93 percent of those surveyed said that Internet companies should always ask for permission before using personal information and 72 percent want the right to opt out when companies track their online behavior.
Some respondents said they take steps to limit the information that is being collected and shared about them online. For example, 35 percent said they use alternate e-mail addresses to avoid providing real information; 26 percent said they have used software that hides their identity; and 25 percent have provided fake information to access a Web site.
And while consumers are aware that information about their surfing habits are being collected online, many of those surveyed are not aware of what companies do with that information.
“Many consumers have misconceptions about the information available about them and how commonly it is sold by companies without their knowledge,” said Joel Kelsey, policy analyst with Consumers Union, in a statement. “Our poll makes clear that consumers want more control over the treasure trove of information companies are collecting about their activities online.”