The year was 2008, I think, and Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ) had opened up its innovation lab in Waltham, Mass., allowing industry analysts and press to get a glimpse of what it was working on for the future. One of the primary exhibits was a smart home that featured, among other things, automatic downloading of photos from a cellphone to the cloud when you walked in your door, and a way of delivering targeted advertising that was very new and exciting, but also a little bit creepy.
The interactive ad capability involved tracking your web browsing history while at home and then targeting ads to individuals based on your online interests and your demographics. For example, a 50-year-old woman who was researching a trip to Italy online would, when she sat down to watch Grey's Anatomy or Dancing with the Stars, see ads for Italy tours or cruises, travel clothes and gear, airlines, etc. What she would not see would be commercials for diapers, the Olive Garden or beer.
The Verizon folks doing the tour were very careful to say that this was just a prototype and not something they would implement, given concerns about consumer privacy.
I was personally intrigued, mostly because I had entered the DVR phase of my life and wasn't watching many commercials but thought I might watch the ads if they were relevant. But most of the other folks on the tour said consumers would never allow a phone company to track their online activity in that manner. Maybe that's why the service never made it out of the lab.
Ten years on, of course, we are all well aware that we are being tracked online by Google (Nasdaq: GOOG), Facebook and others, and often stalked by items we once viewed but didn't buy -- or even that we have already purchased. Now many of us are coming to terms with the reality that our smartphones or in-home assistants such as Amazon Echo and Google Home are listening intently to what we discuss and using those discussions as the jumping-off point to bombard us with new ads.
The first time it happens, it comes as a shock: A friend of mine and his wife were discussing a specific vitamin supplement one of them had used years earlier in recovering from an injury and the next day, both had ads for that vitamin pop up on their newsfeeds. They immediately disabled the microphone access on their smartphone apps.
Research shows, however, that many people, especially millennials, shrug their shoulders and move on, willing to give up privacy for convenience. And I'm willing to bet that over time, the majority of folks accept some "big brother" aspects to all this intelligence, if they feel it benefits them in the long run. Not everyone, mind you, but most.
So let's apply that shift in thinking to another current controversy: paid prioritization. Right now, this is the bogeyman of the net neutrality debate, with proponents of net neutrality laws insisting that this amounts to fast lanes for those who can pay more, and slow lanes for everyone else, including startups and innovators.
As AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) states this recent blog, in this recent blog, however, there is a different side of paid prioritization. Some newer technologies and applications -- including "autonomous cars, remote surgery, enhanced first responder communications and virtual reality services" -- require a different treatment than other, less critical or latency-sensitive traffic would need. This isn't just a bandwidth debate, which is what the popular discussion of net neutrality revolves around most; it's also about delay, jitter and other characteristics of a managed end-to-end service that can guarantee performance.
For me, it makes sense to allow ISPs to tailor how traffic is treated to the specific needs of that traffic, in a managed service context. The question is whether the industry can elevate the debate around net neutrality above the emotional level at which it exists now.
I think this, like the privacy concerns, is an evolutionary process that doesn't have a guaranteed outcome at this point. In his blog, AT&T's Bob Quinn, senior executive vice president of External & Legislative Affairs, says the 2015 net neutrality rules being rolled back in April would have required ISPs to get government permission to offer a managed services approach for innovative offerings, which would slow things down considerably.
"My intent is not to dredge up an old debate but rather to suggest that, as we strive to reach consensus on a consumer framework for the Internet, we have a conversation to figure out how to ban fast lanes and slow lanes, while also ensuring that innovative, new, real-time technologies like those described above continue to live in a world where permission-less innovation exists," he argues.
Ten years from now, will concerns over paid prioritization have taken a back seat the way those over privacy seem to have? I think they might. Do you?
— Carol Wilson, Editor-at-Large, Light Reading