Seattle Acts to Protect Data Privacy

Seattle's City Council has voted to curb cable-operator attempts to monitor and share information about the Web sites their cable-modem customers visit.

Cable systems — which sometimes use such data to determine the most popular sites, in order to speed along Internet traffic — argued that such legislation is unnecessary and sent the state's top industry lobbyist, Broadband Communications Association of Washington director Ron Main, to fight it. But the measure passed unanimously on April 22.

"A policy like this could spread like wildfire," Main said.

In the view of operators, the Seattle ordinance makes companies responsible for policing the entire Internet to catch any attempt to access personally identifiable information.

"It's a solution in search of a problem," added AT&T Broadband spokesman Steve Kipp, whose company serves the city, along with overbuilder Millenium Digital Media.

Seattle officials fear that new interactive technologies enable operators to watch customers as they surf the Internet, and any data gathered could be used to push targeted ads at modem subscriber, for example.

Operators are so concerned about the precedent set by the Seattle proposal that Charter Communications Inc., which also does business in Washington state, also helped lobby against the measure, Kipp said.

Cable companies believe the privacy provision violates federal law. Main asserts the Federal Communications Commission must set Internet policy.

Regulators were alarmed earlier this year when Comcast Corp. admitted to tracking the Web sites visited by its high-speed data customers, so it could determine the locations of the most popular content and store it in a local cache. Such "caching" is done to clear up Internet congestion and speed traffic along the network.

The Philadelphia-based MSO stopped the practice after it became public.

Once the Comcast-AT&T Broadband merger is completed, AT&T Comcast Corp. would become Seattle's incumbent operator.

"If we follow the letter of this law, we can't contact our own customers for non-cable related purposes," said Kipp. "Really, this ordinance doesn't provide users with any more privacy than what's already required under federal law. What it really does is require a lot of jumping through hoops, customer mailings and other impediments."

Cable executives are examining a possible legal challenge to the ordinance, said Kipp.

The BCA would support such a move by filing a friend-of-the-court brief, and by soliciting similar filings from the National Cable & Telecommunications Association and other state associations, said Main.

The privacy policy has become a part of the city's cable customer "bill of rights." Operators are required to notify customers of those rights.

Both AT&T and Millenium must mail out privacy notices to subscribers, with pre-paid return mailers for use by subscribers who wish to opt out of information sharing.