Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Comcast Exploring Plans to Sell Customers’ Web Browsing Data to Advertisers

Following in the footsteps of AT&T’s deceptively-named “Internet Preferences” program, Comcast also wants the right to sell customers’ web browsing data to advertisers. And they’re arguing this at the same time as the FCC is exploring new privacy regulations.

Francis Buono of Comcast, in a regulatory filing concerning an FCC meeting this Monday:

First, we expressed our agreement with the Federal Trade Commission’s (“FTC’s”) comments in this proceeding that the FCC should adopt a sensitivity-based approach to consent. Under such an approach, opt-in consent would be required only with respect to the use or disclosure of sensitive information (financial, health, and children’s information, Social Security numbers, and precise geolocation information), while the use and disclosure of non-sensitive information would be subject to opt-out consent in most instances and implied consent for an ISP to market its products and services to its customers.

While Comcast is generally correct in asserting that data disclosures for marketing purposes are generally opt-out, an ISP should be treated separately. Brian Fung of the Washington Post:

Consumer groups who oppose Comcast have said that Internet providers have a unique vantage point over everything an Internet user does online. For example, Netflix’s intelligence about its users is largely limited to what customers do on its own platform, with little visibility into how those same people watch videos on Hulu or Amazon. […] Internet providers, however, can detect when a subscriber visits all three sites.

The assumption that consumers would generally agree to their personal information being used for marketing purposes without their consent is fundamentally flawed. If provided a choice, most people would probably decline to opt into their data being used for targeted marketing.

Comcast and AT&T know this, which is why they’re offering deep discounts to incentivize subscribers’ consent. Or, to put it another way, Comcast is planning to charge customers extra — and AT&T is currently doing so — to continue to have basic privacy protections on the web.

Update: For comparison, note this Information Week article published in 2002:

Comcast Corp. last week bowed to pressure and agreed to stop recording the IP addresses of its high-speed Internet customers. Some say Comcast could have sidestepped the issue altogether had it been more up front with customers.

The controversy began after a customer noticed his Internet query was being redirected to another Web page. He correctly concluded that Comcast was logging customers’ activity and spread the word. At issue was Comcast’s installation of caching technology in its network six weeks ago to optimize performance by determining which Web pages customers visit the most and then caching them for faster response times.

Comcast is using Inktomi Corp.’s caching technology. When set at the default configuration–which was the case at Comcast–the system logs customers’ IP addresses and the IP addresses and URLs of the Web pages they visit, then purges the data within 36 hours. Customers’ IP addresses were never matched with names or other personal information, Comcast executives say.