Comcast Wins Privacy Suit

The federal Telecommunications Act gives no authority for consumers to sue cable companies alleging their privacy has been violated if that company tracks the consumer as they surf the Web.

That finding, from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, resulted from a case brought by Michigan consumer Jeffrey Klimas, who claimed Comcast violated the rights of all its Internet customers in 2002.

In 2001, Comcast took in-house the customers who had been formerly served by the then-bankrupt Internet service provider At Home Corp. In 2002, Comcast notified consumers that, since the acquisition, it had stored information on consumers' Web destinations. The operator said it would no longer collect that information in an effort to “completely reassure our customers that the privacy of this information is secure.”

At the time, Comcast said the tracking was done to help determine what content to store in “caches” to improve service quality and speed.

Klimas filed a lawsuit U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan that he hoped would be certified as a class action, claiming Comcast's activities violated federal law by collecting “personally identifiable information.”

Federal judge Patrick Duggan dismissed the suit in July 2003, concluding that federal law doesn't specifically define the term “personally identifiable information.”

Even if it did, he said, the complaint did not prove a link between the information collected and the identification of individual consumers.

Duggan said Klimas's suit did not offer proof that the consumer, or others, had been harmed by Comcast's actions.

Klimas's attorney, Steven Goren, immediately appealed the ruling, and arguments were made last year. Late last month, the appeals panel agreed with the lower court.

Between the lower court and appeals rulings, the privacy claim was further weakened by a 2002 Federal Communications Commission ruling stating that Internet provision is not a cable service, but a telecommunications service.

The appeals court said privacy provisions in Section 551(b) of the federal act refer to cable services.

Goren said he would ask the appeals panel to hear further arguments. He believes the ruling was made on issues not argued in the case and wants a chance to convince the panel of that.

Jeanne Russo, director of corporate communications for high-speed services for Comcast, said the operator was pleased with the ruling and that it holds customer privacy in the highest regard. Comcast does not share personal information with anyone, she said.