POLITICS
03/31/2017 08:56 pm ET

AT&T, Comcast Fire Back At Criticism Over Internet Privacy Policies

Pity the poor foxes in charge of the hen house.

House Republicans earlier this week passed a bill to scrap regulations preventing internet service providers from sharing customers’ personal information, including their web browsing history, without their consent.

Understandably, people aren’t exactly thrilled about the prospect of ISPs profiting off their browsing histories, and are raising hell about it. But AT&T, Comcast and Verizon, having lobbied for exactly that outcome, seem startled by the blowback, as indicated by blog posts the companies published about privacy Friday. 

Put another way: The farmer has decided to spend less time watching the hen house, and the foxes feel they’ve been unfairly maligned, despite having a well-deserved reputation for eating chickens. Oh, and the foxes paid the farmer to look the other way.

Pity the poor foxes.

Comcast struck a conciliatory tone in its blog, with the company’s chief privacy officer Gerard Lewis assuring readers the company does not “sell ... broadband customers’ individual web browsing history.”

“We did not do it before the FCC’s rules were adopted,” Lewis writes, “and we have no plans to do so.” Not having current plans to do so, of course, does not mean they will never do so.

Lewis adds that Comcast has “committed not to share our customers’ sensitive information (such as banking, children’s, and health information), unless we first obtain their affirmative, opt-in consent.”

As with his first reassurance, there’s a caveat here: Mainly, this only applies to select categories of information deemed “sensitive.” In the next sentence, Lewis elaborates that “other, non-sensitive data” is indeed used to send targeted ads. To his credit, Lewis provides a link for customers to opt out of receiving those ads, though it’s unclear if opting out of the ads means they cease collecting “non-sensitive” data.

Lewis closes with a pledge to “revise [Comcast’s] privacy policy to make more clear and prominent that, contrary to the many inaccurate statements and reports, we do not sell our customers’ individual web browsing information to third parties and that we do not share sensitive information unless our customers have affirmatively opted in to allow that to occur.”

In striking contrast to Comcast’s attempts at reassurance, AT&T executive Bob Quinn came out swinging, accusing those critical of Congress’ recent regulatory rollback of having a “fact-free debate.”

Quinn argues that ISPs safeguarded customer data just fine before the FCC introduced these rules, which he casts as the Obama administration putting its “hand on the scales to pick winners and losers in the marketplace.”

The real problem, Quinn says, is that “other internet companies, including operating system providers, web browsers, search engines, and social media platforms” are collecting and using customer information in shady ways.

That may well be true, but his argument doesn’t quite pass the smell test. Quinn is effectively saying, “We totally don’t collect and profit from your personal information” ― while also saying, “It’s not fair that other companies on the internet get to collect more information than we do.”

Verizon (which owns Huffington Post parent company AOL) also published a similar letter on the topic Friday, defending both its privacy record and using the same tired line about regulatory “consistency” to defend Congress’ rollback this week.

“Let’s set the record straight,” writes chief privacy office Karen Zacharia. “Verizon does not sell the personal web browsing history of our customers. We don’t do it and that’s the bottom line.

“Consumers benefit and innovations flourish when there is one consistent consumer privacy framework that applies to all internet companies and users in the internet ecosystem.”

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