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Critics extol interactive TV privacy

The government should extend cable TV privacy protections to new interactive TV services that will be rolled out in the next few years, industry critics said Tuesday.

"We need safeguards now before intrusive practices become embedded in our system and it's too late," said Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. Chester made his comments during a conference call to reporters publicizing the center's new study, "TV that Watches You." The report details what Chester and industry critics say is cable companies' plan to track viewer's habits as once they navigate the two-way communications services now under development.

By tracking highly personal data, companies may be able to tailor ads for individual viewers. To overcome consumers' reluctantance to share private information with the companies, cable operators are planning to offer programming discounts. But companies aren't being up front in admitting the extent of information that will be tracked, the critics say.

"There should be a public debate about whether consumers want this system at all, which will fundamentally change the nature of television," Chester said. Currently the 1984 Cable Communications Policy Act bars operators from sharing personal data without getting a customers' permission, but those protections don't apply in the online world and the industry is fighting their application to Interactive TV.

"We've found total disregard for this law," said David Banisar, deputy director of Privacy International. "They are pretending to be covered by [weaker restrictions of] the Internet rather than laws for cable."

The groups said they are urging Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ernest Hollings and Rep. Ed Markey, the House Telecommunications Subcommittee's ranking Democrat, to introduce legislation that would require ITV privacy protection. They also are pressing the idea at the FCC and the Federal Trade Commission.

Ben Isaacson, executive director of the Association for Interactive Media, said regulation of ITV is premature and would harm the industry's development. - Bill McConnell