A House bill introduced last Tuesday would take existing cable-TV consumer privacy protections and extend them to include customers of direct-broadcast satellite providers DirecTV Inc. and EchoStar Communications Corp.
It would also apply to digital video recording services like TiVo Inc. and Replay TV.
Cable companies are required to safeguard billing records from unauthorized public disclosure. Federal law prohibits cable operators from collecting or disclosing what's called "personally identifiable information" without customer consent.
The legislation, introduced by Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), was extolled as an effort to bring privacy laws up to speed with advances in technology.
"This bill provides essential, similar privacy protections for consumers regardless of whether they subscribe to Comcast or Cox cable, EchoStar or DirecTV, or whether they also subscribe to TiVo or Replay TV. This will keep our critical consumer privacy laws current with changes in the marketplace and advances in technology," Markey said in a statement.
Cable-privacy protections were adopted in the 1984 Cable Act. Markey's 12-page bill copies some of that law verbatim.
For example, it would bar collection and disclosure of "personal identifiable information" without the customer's prior written or electronic consent. Under the bill, customers would receive notice at least once a year explaining how the information would be disclosed.
Digital technology and software allow companies to track TV viewing habits and monitor Internet surfing. The information can be harvested and sold to marketing and advertising firms seeking to stay connected with consumers who are no longer easy to reach during prime time television.
Markey, co-chairman of the Congressional Privacy Caucus, said companies today make money collecting and selling "aggregate data" about consumer viewing habits to advertisers and marketing firms.
His bill would ensure that subscriber-specific data does not become commercially exploitable without consent.
"For some people, it's just spooky that what you are watching in your own living room is available at somebody at Saatchi & Saatchi," Markey aide Colin Crowell said.
Alan Davidson, associate director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, agreed with the thrust of the bill.
"Our gut reaction is that we are very glad that Rep. Markey is raising these important issues about how privacy protections extend to consumers now using satellite and other technologies," said Davidson, whose group monitors business and governmental activities that can compromise personal privacy.
Some expressed concern about the bill. Matt Zinn, TiVo's vice president, general counsel and chief privacy officer, said the law was unnecessary because the company, as a rule, did not collect information on an individual customer basis. He added that in 2001, the Federal Trade Commission probed TiVo's privacy policies and concluded there was no basis for action.
TiVo, now with 1 million subscribers, is a digital device for storing hours of TV programming and its customers are passionate about the product. Some DirecTV set-tops include TiVo technology.
DirecTV Inc. and EchoStar Communications Corp. would not comment on the legislation.
The Information Technology Association of of American (ITAA) released a statement critical of the Markey bill, suggesting that restrictions on data collection could hurt the development of services that are based on individual preferences.
ITAA, based in Arlington, Va. with about 400 corporate members, typically backs policies promoting information technology.
"In moving to protect the privacy of consumers, the rule for lawmakers must be to first do no harm," said ITAA president Harris N. Miller. "Part of the consumer excitement of interactive television is to be able to tailor a set of programmable services for individual users.
"Unfortunately, the proposed legislation would put forward remedies in areas where privacy issues do not exist, while at the same time creating situations where interactivity functionality is lost."
An ITAA spokesman could not, however, cite specific examples where the bill's privacy-protection scheme would have the impact claimed by Miller.
Markey's bill includes a few exemptions. Like cable operators, companies covered by the measure would not need prior consent to determine whether someone is stealing the service.
Civil penalties in the bill include fines of $100 per day, as well as punitive damages and attorneys' fees.