AT&T Answers Congressional Inquiry about Behavioral Practices

AT&T has responded to an inquiry from Rep. Anna Eshoo regarding its behavioral advertising practices and relationship with Audience Science. Although AT&T’s response reveals little new information, it does represent another marker in the ongoing online privacy debate path that’s been circling Capitol Hill in recent months.

During a hearing held by the House Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, and the Internet last month, and in a subsequent letter to the company, the congresswoman questioned AT&T directly about its relationship with cookie-based behavioral targeting firm Audience Science. It was somewhat unclear whether Eshoo was asking about AT&T’s behavioral ad practices in its role as advertiser or Internet Service Provider. Intending to clarify the firm’s separate businesses and their involvement with behavioral targeting, AT&T SVP Public Policy and Chief Privacy Officer Dorothy Attwood responded yesterday in a letter sent to Eshoo’s Washington, D.C. office.

“It is in our role as a typical advertiser of our own products and services that AT&T has had a business relationship with Audience Science since approximately 2005… Audience Science does not use deep packet inspection technology, but does use cookie-based method to develop a view on the types of advertisements that consumers might find most relevant or useful, and to assist advertisers and website publishers, such as AT&T, to deliver ads for products and services based on that view,” wrote Attwood.

There does seem to be confusion among some lawmakers regarding the differences between the accepted industry practice of cookie-based behavioral ad targeting, and the far more controversial practice of ISP-level, deep packet inspection ad tracking and ad targeting. “Notably,” said the AT&T letter, “AT&T’s online practices as a website publisher or advertiser have never been a focal point of our exchanges or testimony.”

Still, the fact that many consumers and some lawmakers don’t distinguish between varying approaches to behavioral targeting could mean such nuances will be moot if and when new legislation or regulations are put in place. To be sure, during last month’s House hearing, lawmakers indicated they plan to draft new legislation regarding online privacy which could affect behavioral targeting.

In particular, Eshoo, a California Democrat, asked in her letter to AT&T about the company’s opt-out policies regarding its use of Audience Science’s technology. In yesterday’s missive, AT&T stated that Audience Science links from its privacy policy to the Web site of the industry’s self-regulatory body, the Network Advertising Initiative. There, users can opt-out from tracking by Audience Science and other firms enabling behavioral tracking and targeting, including AOL-owned and Tacoda, Yahoo’s Blue Lithium, Fox Audience Network, and Google.

As it has in previous statements submitted to congress, AT&T suggested firms “such as Google and Yahoo” may be more appropriate companies to ask about “consumer-tracking and behavioral advertising capabilities of publishers, ad networks and search engines.” And, calling for an “industry-wide effort” to develop universal standards for online ad targeting, privacy, transparency, and consumer control, AT&T noted it is “more than willing to work with all entities in the ecosystem to create standards that can advance consumer interests.”

Eshoo’s Washington office did not respond to ClickZ’s request for comment in time for publication of this story.

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