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AT&T, Time Warner, Verizon Back Opt-In for Online Ads

Verizon Communications, Time Warner Cable and AT&T all said Thursday that they support an opt-in system for targeted online advertising and pledged to hold to basic best practices.

That's according to the testimony of executives from all three companies at a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on online privacy Thursday.

Verizon executive vice president and former congressman Tom Tauke outlined the principles in his testimony.

Opting in means that companies that want to track Web surfers’ movements and use that data to target ads to them must get their permission first, rather than making it incumbent upon those surfers to opt out.

That and other issues related to online advertising and privacy have been the subject of Hill hearings, terse letters from legislators and threats of legislation, including from House Telecommunications & Internet Subcommittee chairman Ed Markey (D-Mass.).

After a July hearing on online advertising, Tauke said he got the clear signal from the hearing that the "strong sentiment" was for "clear notice" and "meaningful opt-in."

Tauke was certainly sending that signal Thursday, encouraging other companies to join Verizon in committing to the following principles:

• 1. "Verizon believes that before a company captures certain Internet-usage data for targeted or customized advertising purposes, it should obtain meaningful, affirmative consent from consumers." To get that “meaningful” consent, Tauke said, requires a) explaining to consumers exactly what kind of data are being collected and for what; b) treating a failure to consent as meaning no collection of data for "online behavioral marketing"; and c) consumers' ability to easily opt out if they initially agree but change their minds.

• 2) "Any company engaged in tracking and collecting consumer online behavioral information must have appropriate access, security and technological controls to guard against unauthorized access to any personal information," Tauke added.

• 3) And finally, all participants -- including ad networks, search engines, Internet-service providers and others -- need to commit to those principles and agree to certification of compliance by an independent third-party. "We believe companies engaged in online behavioral advertising should agree to participate in a credible, third-party certification process to demonstrate to consumers that they are doing what they say with regard to the collection and use of information for online behavioral advertising," he said.

AT&T and Time Warner Cable were on the same page, telling the Senate Commerce Committee that they, too, would adopt similar guidelines and only use behavioral advertising on an opt-in basis. All three companies made the point that the pledges would only work if all providers pledged to do the same.

“Common rules are the only way to ensure that businesses compete on a level playing field,” said Peter Stern, chief strategy officer at Time Warner Cable.

Verizon, AT&T and Time Warner Cable all said they do not now engage in targeted behavioral advertising, but if they do, it would be circumscribed by their pledge of protecting customer information, informing them of what they were doing and getting consent first.

ISPs are hoping to avoid congressional intervention in the online-advertising market, and Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), who chaired the hearing, said he appreciated the value of online advertising and was not looking to rush to legislation, although he did not rule it out, either.

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.