Comcast says it clearly explains its online data
collection to users of Comcast.net, that those practices comply with "all
applicable laws," and adds that it does not sell user data collected on
That was in response to questions from Reps. Joe
Barton (R-Tex.) and Ed Markey (D-Mass.) released Friday. The legislators
are co-chairs of the Bi-Partisan Privacy Caucus, who had asked for info from
companies on their online tracking technologies. The
letters bore August dates but were just made public Friday.
Comcast said that it gave users "choice and
control over when and how their personal information may be used," which
it said was a mix of opt-in and opt-out techniques. It also said it only shared
information with third parties that provide services on
Comcast.net. The site provides a variety of "causal services"
like gaming and online dating, as well as search, news and
entertainment content, e-mail and voicemail. Comcast also said it limits
that sharing to only information necessary to provide those services.
The company said it discloses which third parties
it uses for advertising services and links to the relevant policies
and opt-out pages for those parties.
The companies outlined their privacy and information
policies, but Yahoo!, for one, said even it can't keep up with
all the tracking going on. "[I]t is technically impossible for Yahoo! to
be aware of all software or files that may be installed on
a user's computer when they visit our site," the company said in its
response, adding that it can see the cookies it adds, but
not others since they are on a user's hard drive.
One argument the companies make, and one shared by
some legislators and policymakers, is that online advertising, including targeted
behavioral advertising, is how the Internet is able to provide a lot of the
free content users have come to expect. "We know that free online content
and services have become an essential part of consumers' lives," said
"In order to continue to provide our audience
of over 20 million users with free content," said Merriam-Webster of
its online dictionary site, "we are required to run advertisements."
Those advertisers, said the company, and advertisers on most major sites
"require some targeting capabilities which are achieved through
cookies and other tracking devices," it said, adding that those needs
notwithstanding, it takes steps to protect its users' privacy by following
industry standards, not allowing third parties to collect personally identifiable
info and having clear disclosures about what it does allow.
Markey's response to the collective answer was
that "The responses raise a number of concerns, including whether consumers
are able to effectively shield their personal Internet habits and private
information from the prying eyes of online data
gatherers," he said. "While the responses that Rep. Barton and I
received cite privacy policies and opt-out choices to enable
consumers to preserve their privacy, these policies can be complicated and laborious
Markey, author of the Children's Online Privacy
Protection Act, also said Friday it was time to update it to better
protect kids' privacy online.
"There is now a small army of companies
collecting, analyzing, trading, and using information about consumers' habits,
purchases, and private data," said Barton in a joint statement.
"While some of these practices may be entirely
legitimate-some, in fact, ultimately beneficial to the consumer-I do worry that
not only are many Americans unaware of these practices, but
those who seek out information in privacy policies often come up against complicated
legalese," he said.
"All the companies hide behind `it's a
business as we created it and good for everyone' facade," says Center For Digital
Democracy Executive Director Jeff Chester. "Many use a scare tactic
claiming that the data collection model they developed is
responsible for funding online content/publishing and without it much, if not
all, of the
Internet would vanish (as if you can't have both
robust e-commerce and privacy!)... The companies don't take responsibility
for the problem or acknowledge that there are privacy concerns
The issue of online advertising, tracking and
privacy are heating up as the FCC pushes broadband and as a critical universal
service, technology puts the Internet in the hands, literally, of kids and
adults alike; and marketers move their efforts more to the online spaces where
business and social life is increasingly being conducted.
The Federal Trade Commission is
preparing recommendations for updating kids online protections. That could
include opt-in regimes for teens and requiring clearer privacy policies.