Internet Providers Positioned to Mine Data for Targeted Ads

Broadband Internet providers gather masses of data on consumer behavior but thus far have been slow to use that data for targeted advertising. However, as cable and telecom companies feel the negative impact of cord-cutting, they are beginning to look to their broadband units to make up the shortfall. AT&T and Google Fiber already mine customer data, but Altice USA, Comcast, Charter Communications and Verizon Communications have been reluctant to either gather or use personal data, for fear of customer pushback.

The Wall Street Journal reports that, in March, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) asked ISPs “to detail which types of personal information they collect about customers and their devices, how they use it and what consent they obtain from consumers,” an inquiry that is ongoing.

In 2017, Congress overturned an Obama-era regulation requiring “telecom companies to obtain customers’ permission to market their app and web-browsing history to third parties,” thus making it easier for them to exploit customer data that can track what apps people use and for how long and “throw off hints about the type of device a consumer likely used.”

“You can escape Facebook if you really worked at it,” said Electronic Frontier Foundation legislative counsel Ernesto Falcon. “You can’t escape your ISP. In a real, concrete way, it’s more powerful than what Google or Facebook can do.”

The power of combining Internet behavior with, say, voter registration records could enable an ISP to “theoretically identify households with a 25-year-old on the cusp of needing health insurance, and show those households ads for coverage.” Needless to say, “marketers are willing to pay a premium for such hyper-targeted ads.”

Cable operators have, for years, sold localized TV ads, by matching “ads to households with certain billing ZIP Codes and refin[ing] the targeting further with data from third parties, such as household-income estimates.”

According to its privacy policy, AT&T already “collects information such as users’ wireless-device location and Internet protocol address, as well as the webpages those users visit, the search terms they enter and how long they spend using apps.” Further, the telecom’s terms of use “say it has the right to use customer data for advertising … [although] its privacy policy lists several ways for consumers to limit how their data is used for marketing purposes.”