Comcast, Cablevision and AT&T Violating Privacy Through Addressable Advertising, Groups Say

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A group of consumer watchdogs has filed a complaint with the FCC, alleging that Comcast (NASDAQ: CMCSA), AT&T (NYSE: T) and Cablevision (NYSE: CVC) are violating customer privacy through addressable advertising schemes on pay-TV set-tops. 

For its part, AT&T responded by calling the complaint, "bogus."

The complaint was filed today by Public Knowledge, the Center for Digital Democracy and Consumer Watchdog, which are also pressing the FCC to follow through on its NPRM to regulate the pay-TV set-top business.

According to these groups, federal laws already "require that cable and satellite providers obtain the 'written or electronic consent of the subscriber concerned' prior to the collection and use of the information for advertising purposes. Operators are also required to provide a written statement to their subscribers, which clearly and conspicuously informs the subscriber of the nature of the use of their personally identifiable information."

Citing specific examples, the groups said AT&T's Blueprint addressable ad system "gives advertisers working with AT&T the ability to reach people based on factors like device, operating system, whether or not they're heavy data users or the status of their carrier contract," using sophisticated second-by-second set-top box data and other information. AT&T pulls data "from millions of set-top boxes" and analyzes consumer viewing history and uses these data to target consumers based on their viewing profile. 

"Companies like Cablevision," the groups added, "leverage granular data and precise details of household viewing behavior, and combine it with third-party data covering other intimate details of consumers' lives to analyze and target specific individuals with video advertising across a range of screens…This set-top box level targeting lets marketers target customers that fit particular trends, profiles, demographics and attributes, and they can also pair the Cablevision data with their own or third-party data."

The FCC, the groups said, "should take the affirmative step of declaring that the use of customer information requires opt-in consent and that absent such consent, cable providers violate privacy rules by collecting customer information and using it to deliver marketing tailored to those customers."

Cablevision had no comment, while Comcast reps didn't immediately respond to FierceCable's inquiry.

On AT&T's policy blog, meanwhile, Jim Cicconi, AT&T's senior executive VP of external and legislative affairs, released the following statement: "AT&T's use of anonymous and aggregate set-top box information is entirely consistent with the statute. Our disclosures tell our customers exactly how we use that data and provide tools for customers to opt out. Frankly, this complaint is bogus, and seems mainly designed to distract the public from the overwhelming bipartisan opposition to the FCC's controversial set-top box plan. That plan itself will erode existing consumer privacy protections, not to mention its many other harms. Because the plan's few remaining supporters have no answer to that charge, they've decided to invent a false privacy claim. This smacks of desperation, and it also carries the whiff of hypocrisy. It's further proof, if any is needed, that the plan's supporters have lost the public policy debate on this issue."

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