Comcast says it clearly explains its online data collection to users of Comcast.net, that its practices comply with "all applicable laws," and it does not sell user data collected on the site.
Those were the responses 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.
Comcast was among a number of companies singled out for responses, including Verizon, MySpace, Microsoft, Yahoo! and AOL.
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 made, 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 Yahoo!.
"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. Those needs notwithstanding, the company said 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: "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 to navigate."
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 outstanding."
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.