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AT&T Controls the Future of Privacy — Seriously

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tfopf2I’ve spent the past few days pretty immersed in the SC 08 conference here in Austin, Texas, but I’m still embarrassed that I missed the formation of a new lobbying organization think tank called The Future of Privacy that’s being funded by AT&T (s T). The group hopes to help policy makers and business leaders figure out how to manage online privacy.

A big source of irony from the group, other than its purported focus on online privacy to benefit consumers and the industry alike, is that Co-chair Christopher Wolf also headed up one of my favorite astroturfing efforts, Hands Off The Internet, the phone company think tank dedicated to Net Neutrality. Somehow, that connection isn’t mentioned in his FOP bio. Wolf is a litigation partner in the Washington, D.C. office of Proskauer Rose LLP, a firm that does work for AT&T. The other co-founder of FOP, Jules Polonetsky (here’s a great interview on his views on Internet privacy), was the former chief privacy officer at AOL. Prior to that he worked at DoubleClick, which was bought by Google (s GOOG).

The creation of the FOP is both a good thing and bad thing. It’s a sign that consumers worried about how their private information is collected and used on the Internet have been taken seriously. On the other hand, the backer and members of this particular organization are highly likely to influence legislators in a direction that will keep consumers’ data in their hands.

I hope that some of the more privacy focused representatives can cut through the corporate double-speak that I have seen firsthand from the telecommunications companies on other issues. Perhaps Google, which is not represented on the board, can start its own privacy think tank and we can watch the fight unfurl between caching private data for later use, and profiting from data as it travels through the ISPs’ pipes.

This issue of Internet privacy has gained more momentum in the last few months after ISPs contracted with a startup called NebuAd to monitor where a consumer surfs the web and serve ads against those visits. Other companies are trying this as well. Since then, Congress has held two hearings on online privacy, with one related to data collection and the other related to deep-packet inspection as employed by NebuAD and its ISP customers.

As the online experience becomes more interactive, the rules around of who’s watching us as we’re watching the web need to be defined. But in addition to worries about corporate spying, legislators and lobbying organizations should also take a close look at what governments can now access and use. For those of you following this space, the advisory board includes:

  • Dorothy Attwood, Senior Vice President, Public Policy and Chief Privacy Officer, AT&T, who went before Congress to decry NebuAd’s tactics but noted that perhaps in exchange for lower rates a consumer might be willing to share more data with the ISP
  • Chris Kelly, Chief Privacy Officer and Head of Global Public Policy, Facebook, the company that brought you the privacy nightmare known as Beacon
  • Simon Davies, Director, Privacy International
  • Peter Swire, a law professor at Ohio State University and Senior Fellow, Center for American Progress, who is advising President-elect Barack Obama on technology

16 Responses to “AT&T Controls the Future of Privacy — Seriously”

  1. If you are a member of AT&T (including Cingular and SBC), Bell South or Verizon, your telecom company willingly sold the private telephone records of American citizens to the Bush administration’s illegal domestic spying operation. Please contact your provider and let them know that this is simply unacceptable.

    Contact AT&T:
    Contact Verizon:
    Contact BellSouth:

    In protest, I cancelled my landline and DSL with AT&T (who bought SBC) although I still use Yahoo! which they also now own. I also switched from Verizon to Credo (aka Working Assets) whose website I linked in my sig FYI.

    I did discover the latter has an office in the Federal Reserve building in SF, and their PR rep informed it’s a tenant relationship which I decided is preferable to collaboration with the NSA et al.

  2. Tim
    I winced as well when Stacey called a lobbying group a “think tank.” But then I decided the point was perhaps more effective with irony.

    The interesting thing about all this is that AT&T needed to find a job for Wolf after essentially disbanding HOTF (McCurry left, then Wolf.) He’s a Democrat in a Democratic town, and those get paid very well these days.

    T has essentially abandoned the fight against NN, because we beat them and the incoming administration is strong on the issue. Meanwhile, those of us who care about consumers and the Internet have to realize where they have shifted their efforts. Their primary goal this year is to get as much government money as possible, with a massive campaign underway to get a gift from “broadband infrastructure” spending. They are looking for $30-60B, an almost unbelievable figure, for proposals that will not produce any meaningful growth in broadband however you define it.

    None of which means the NN fight doesn’t need careful watching, but the bells have moved on and are pulling the debate to how much money they can get. These guys are very, very good.


  3. Privacy + Internet equal a nasty convergence. With search engines and specifically people search tools online dating and social networking are tantamount to surrendering your personal information. Yesterday, I read an article [ ] regarding a professional who lost their job based upon comments made on Facebook. On the other hand, Sparkbliss is a rare example of personal privacy online.

  4. Calling Hands off the Internet a “think tank” is generous. The phone-company front group was a thinly disguised effort to cloak AT&T’s policy agenda in a skin of public consent. Thankfully, their efforts to “Astroturf” issues like Net Neutrality were exposed by watchful bloggers and others, and HandsOff’s rhetoric was soon accompanied by its own laugh track. The credibility of Wolf and his Hands Off partner Mike McCurry has been deeply damaged by such corporate shilling. His name on this effort should raise significant doubts.

  5. Stacey Higginbotham

    Paul, I agree with you on the Google angle.

    benjaminwright that’s an interesting concept, but I’m not sure how many people would be willing to do that and I’m also not sure how enforceable such contracts would be. Plus, would a consumer have to go to court to really enforce them? That’s expensive. It’s an interesting framework to consider. Thanks for giving me something to think about.

  6. Yes, future legislation will help to set the rules for online privacy. However, I argue legislation is not the only relevant source of future privacy law. Contract law will also play a role. Consumers have the ability by contract to achieve more of their legitimate privacy goals. And the Internet enables consumers to make more use of contract law. Internet contract law is surprisingly powerful.

    If Google can assert its legal contract terms just by publishing them (on something less than its homepage), then maybe consumers/users can assert their own terms of privacy protection just by publishing them! A user might say in her published terms of service that search engines (or ISPs) cannot keep records of her searches longer than 2 weeks. What do you think? –Ben My ideas are not legal advice for anyone or any particular situation, just something to discuss.