Consumer Watch: Are ISPs helping spies?

Cable's safeguards

Contrast this with the privacy policy for Comcast's high-speed Internet service (AT&T Yahoo's principal competitor in my neck of the woods). Read the policy here, and you'll find this sentence: "Comcast considers the personally identifiable information contained in our business records to be confidential." Sure, it's still part of a business record, but the whole tenor of the statement is markedly different from AT&T's pronouncement. And it's followed by a sentence in which Comcast says it can disclose a customer's personal information only in certain cases--to conduct business related to the customer's services, if "required by law or legal process," or for mailing lists (if the subscriber doesn't opt out).

Time Warner Cable's privacy policy page specifically references several laws that the policy complies with: The Cable Communications Policy Act of 1984, the Electronic Communications Policy Act of 1986, and the Online Copyright Infringement Liability Limitation Act of 1998. In most regards, Time Warner Cable's privacy policy is similar to Comcast's.

"We have all kinds of privacy laws that don't make any sense," Schwartz says of the situation. "They're based on how the information is being communicated rather than the type of information."

An example of how privacy requirements vary based on the delivery mechanism has to do with video. The confidentiality of records of video rentals from Blockbuster and its competitors is strictly protected by the Video Privacy Protection Act of 1988 (enacted after a newspaper disclosed the video-rental records of Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork). Schwartz says it's likely that law would also apply to DVD rentals from companies such as Netflix. But AT&T's video-on-demand transactions, which the company now classifies as business records, may not be covered by the law.

Privacy laws coming

U.S. Representatives Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts) and Joe Barton (R-Texas) are working on bills to address these contradictions, and Senator Hillary Clinton (D-New York) has called for a privacy bill of rights. Schwartz says the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Trade Commission are examining the issue. But for now, if you prefer to keep your Internet activities and video-viewing habits private, opt for cable.

Yardena Arar is a senior editor for PC World U.S. E-mail her at consumerwatch@pcworld.com.

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