AT&T Controls the Future of Privacy — Seriously

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. 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.

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
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