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AT&T Staunchly Defends Ad Targeting

Claims it's never
adversely targeted users

As mobile advertising picks up steam, AT&T sets a precedent by issuing a strong defense of tracking users' web-browsing behavior across its network, arguing it can "dramatically improve their experience," reports the New York Times.

AT&T also emphasized the importance of doing so "the right way," meaning using of the "opt-in" method (requiring customers to affirmatively agree to monitoring) as opposed to "opt-out" (tracking anyone who does not explicitly ask to not be tracked). The latter is the method most commonly used by ad targeting companies.

The announcement was part of a response to an inquiry from the House Committee on Energy and Commerce to 33 companies concerning ad targeting practices. News that behavioral ad firm NebuAd might buy customer web-surfing data from several internet service providers (ISPs) prompted the inquiry. Major ISPs, including Comcast, Verizon, TimeWarner Cable, and AOL, reassured the Committee that they do not monitor behavior on sites they don't run.

Against the tide, AT&T asserted behavioral targeting can be valuable for customers — provided that companies give consumers control over their information, ensure transparency, and take steps to protect privacy.

Justifying AT&T's argument, a recent Harris Interactive study found consumers are generally fine with behavioral targeting as long as privacy and security safeguards are met.

AT&T has never engaged in overall behavioral targeted advertising, not even in a customer trial, company spokeswoman Dorothy Attwood pointed out. She added that ISPs and ad networks, like Google, glean a deeper understanding of customer behavior by examining their entire online browsing history across all websites as opposed to examining their activity on just one.

Other behavioral targeting activities, like correlating web-surfing data across various platforms (i.e. use on sites broken down by broadband versus wireless users) is possible, she added, but AT&T has so far refrained from doing so, choosing instead to take a more "deliberate approach" to tracking and developing ad-delivery technologies.

The House conducted a hearing in mid-July to determine to what extent the partnership between ISPs and ad firms infringe upon user privacy, putting pressure on both parties to reform their current practices.


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