AT&T: Equalize Privacy Restrictions By Cutting Telcos', Raising Cable's, Web Companies'

Ryan Calo, a residential fellow at the Center for Internet & Society, talked to reporter Louis Traeger about the legality of regulating privacy rules for various service providers:

AT&T thinks restrictions on collecting and using information about customers and their actions online should be reduced for telcos and raised to the same level for cable companies and Web publishers, an executive said. Telcos come under "rules that other players in the environment don't have," and they apply beyond the wireline voice business that has long been heavily regulated, said Sherry Ramsey, assistant vice president for regulatory planning and policy.

"We just want to have a level playing field and participate in the same way as other players," Ramsey said at a meeting of the Telecom Council of Silicon Valley late Thursday. What's needed for everyone are "common-sense privacy rules" based on the Fair Information Practices, she said.

Ryan Calo, who runs the consumer privacy project of the Stanford Center for Internet & Society, agreed that all service providers should come under the same rules for secondary uses, third-party sharing and security of user information. But he indicated that the rules for other companies should be raised without lowering those for telcos. The restrictions on carriers are appropriate not only because they "are heavily regulated in general," but also because they vacuum up vast amounts of information "by virtue of providing a service," Calo said.

The FCC and the FTC are "struggling" with "who is supposed to be regulating in this space and with what authority," Calo said. He called it a "turf war." Calo added, "You don't want these agencies regulating too much."

It's in Internet companies' interest to hold themselves to privacy rules beyond those imposed by government, no matter how odd that sounds, Calo said. That corporate approach is needed for "brand protection and trust," he said. There's "ample evidence" that companies which follow this path "succeed" and those that don't "have PR disasters," Calo said.


Privacy-protecting technology businesses are emerging in the business-to-business and business-to-consumer markets, speakers said. Calo talked up Abine, whose browser plug-in is billed as managing a user's passwords, dealings with Web cookies and beacons and other personal information matters online. He puts more stock in technology tools than "bills of rights," which are by nature "aspirational," he said.