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If Facebook’s Privacy Practices Anger You, AT&T Shouldn’t Get A Free Pass

Recent privacy conversations have tended to fixate almost exclusively on Facebook and its seemingly-bottomless pit of privacy scandals. But we’ve noted more than a few times how telecom has somehow been excluded from these conversations, despite behavior that’s historically been as bad…or worse. From hoovering up and selling your location data to every Tom, Dick, and Harry on the internet, to trying to charge consumers even more money just to protect their own private data, telecom has a long, thirty-year history just packed with playing fast and loose with your private browsing, location, and other data.

And yet while the newswires are routinely now flooded with stories about how we need to break up Facebook, telecom has oddly gotten a pass. Telecom lobbyists just convinced the US government to effectively neuter FCC oversight authority over ISPs, all while these same ISPs call for heavier regulation of Silicon Valley giants they want to compete with in the online video ad space. That this might just be all one connected problem appears to be a concept that has escaped the thinking of far too many purported experts in the antitrust and tech policy worlds.

Telecom giants are particularly problematic because they not only own the conduit to the home, they increasingly own the services and content flowing over those connections, providing endless anti-competitive opportunities. As companies like AT&T and Comcast keep making very clear, they not only want to dominate wireless and fixed broadband, they want to be the next Google or Facebook. Fortune recently did a deep dive into AT&T’s ambitions, highlighting how the company’s data collection and tracking ambitions are every bit as problematic as Facebook:

“Say you and your neighbor are both DirecTV customers and you’re watching the same live program at the same time,” says Brian Lesser, who oversees the vast data-crunching operation that supports this kind of advertising at AT&T. “We can now dynamically change the advertising. Maybe your neighbor’s in the market for a vacation, so they get a vacation ad. You’re in the market for a car, you get a car ad. If you’re watching on your phone, and you’re not at home, we can customize that and maybe you get an ad specific to a car retailer in that location.” Such targeting has caused privacy headaches for Yahoo, Google, and Facebook, of course. That’s why AT&T requires that customers give permission for use of their data; like those other companies, it anonymizes that data and groups it into audiences—for example, consumers likely to be shopping for a pickup truck—rather than targeting specific individuals. Regardless of how you see a directed car ad, say, AT&T can then use geolocation data from your phone to see if you went to a dealership and possibly use data from the automaker to see if you signed up for a test-drive—and then tell the automaker, “Here’s the specific ROI on that advertising,” says Lesser. AT&T claims marketers are paying four times the usual rate for that kind of advertising.”

To make this work, AT&T needs to collect your TV viewing data, your daily location data, a significant database on your interests, data from third parties (car dealers), and your daily internet clickstream habits, a fusion of previously siloed datasets that even Verizon executives worried would be a bridge too far.