Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Bresnan - Internet Privacy Update

Last week I wrote about a controversial Internet advertising technology, and its' use by two telecommunications services providers with a significant presence in Mesa County.

In an attempt to gather additional information regarding the relationship, and in the absence of any local media coverage of this, I made contact with representatives of Bresnan Communications regarding their use of the NebuAd technology that has so many Internet privacy advocates in a state of alarm.

Bresnan Vice President of Public Affairs Shawn Beqaj (pronounced buh-KAI) spoke with me by phone yesterday from Bresnan corporate headquarters in Purchase, NY. He followed up with an e-mail later in the day. Our phone conversation can be summarized by the following:

  • Bresnan's trial of the NebuAd product has concluded. This occurred sometime in June.
  • There is no current use of NebuAd technology on any of Bresnan's servers.
  • Bresnan Customer Service personnel will receive updated information regarding the conclusion of the NebuAd trial.
  • Bresnan's commitment to protecting the privacy of its' customers is "paramount" to the company's operating principles.
Mr. Beqaj elaborated further in his e-mail:
"Bresnan, as a cable company, has clear regulatory requirements regarding customer privacy and even beyond those requirements, we hold ourselves to a very strict code of ethics regarding the use of customer information."

"Specifically, we very simply do not release or trade, in any way, the customer information that we compile as a necessary act of providing our services. That code of conduct would extend to any advanced, or behavioral advertising."
"The NeBuAd trial did not involve the use of any personally identifiable information and Bresnan strictly adhered to the US Federal Trade Commission’s guidelines for use of their service."

"That being said, we are sensitive to the concerns of both our customers and the regulators and policymakers involved in the discourse surrounding these technologies and intend to participate in the public process of determining what the policy guidelines should be for their use, in whatever open forum in which the occur."

"Once a clear policy is identified we will, as we do now with all other privacy regulation, strictly adhere to them as well."
"We are currently not using any other technology, nor are there any plans to do so with any vendor, until the technology has been publicly vetted."
With this information in hand, it looks as if Bresnan has joined Charter Communications, CenturyTel (which provides telecom services to rural eastern Mesa County), Embarq, and others in backing away from the NebuAd technology.

NebuAd has responded to what one techno blog site called a "backlash", with CEO Bob Dykes attempting to establish a conciliatory, understanding tone, as quoted by the Washington Post last week:
"We support CenturyTel's decision to delay its implementation plans so that Congress can spend additional time addressing the privacy issues and policies associated with online behavioral advertising," Dykes said. "NebuAd and its ISP partners are actively working together to refine a rollout plan tailored for each ISP that continues to set the standard for privacy protection in advertising online to consumers. NebuAd looks forward to a continued open dialogue with legislators, regulators, and the advocacy community."
So the bottom line is that Bresnan, CenturyTel, and other ISP's around the country have backed away from the NebuAd technology in the face of a lot of concern from privacy advocates, congressmen, and others.

This doesn't mean that the need for diligence has ended, of course. The below admonition from Broadband Reports is well worth heeding:
"The lip service to privacy advocates is a nice touch -- but ultimately empty. Lawmakers don't have the guts to stand up to the $11 billion online advertising industry and mandate that these services are opt-in, and smart lobbyists and lawyers will be able to skirt existing privacy laws with a few tweaks and a good "education" campaign."
Indeed, the current debate on the FISA legislation, and associated telecom immunity, may help to set the stage for debate on other issues related to technology, access, and privacy well into the term of the next President.

I'd like to thank Shawn Beqaj from Bresnan for his prompt and comprehensive answers in response to my inquiry.


Bob said...

Thanks for pursuing this important issue. The installation of this kind of third-party equipment (NebuAd, Adzilla, Phorm, etc.) at an ISP is a betrayal of trust. We need more competition for our last-mile Internet connections. I appreciate Mr. Beqaj's prompt response, but if this ad-spy technology is so harmless ("no user-identifiable info") and so beneficial ("users get ads that are more-relevant"), why the hell isn't it "opt in"? And, here's the real kicker, why not some revenue-sharing incentives of a few bucks off their bill for users to opt in? No, there is a good reason Bresnan and others have been so tellingly sneaky about all this: Most users would be appalled by this intrusion.

ken said...

the bresnan "family" should be a (lot?) little more "patriotic" to the citizens of THIS great country.
they fail miserbably upon the "trust us", "skrew you", and basic "honesty factor(s)", we (as Americans) should expect for propping up "their" enterprise.
my ancestors (and family) have fought for the right to NOT have to put up with people/corporates constantly lying to us.
i'm sure they think they can block this blog, too.
good night, and good luck; if, you think your opinion matters. some day, it might.