The news that Verizon will pay a $1.35 million fine for tracking its mobile customers' Internet activity without their permission triggered a memory for me of a trip I made, back in 2008, to the Verizon Labs facility in Waltham, Mass. The purpose of the trip was for Verizon to show the assembled media and analysts some of its forward-looking work.
One of the more intriguing things that Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ) demonstrated was the ability to discern the interests of its customers based on their web browsing and to use that information to better target the TV ads they viewed over FiOS TV. At the time, however, company officials were very careful to state that they had no immediate plans to create a product around this capability, given the potential privacy concerns.
Of course, that's almost exactly what Verizon Wireless was busted for doing -- using "supercookies" to track mobile Internet usage in order to better target web ads.
Here's the irony for me: Many of us on that Waltham tour, myself included, LOVED the idea that we would no longer have to suffer through ads for baby diapers, low-carb beers or luxury cars when none of those things were of interest. Even those of us -- again, myself included -- who were already becoming DVR-obsessed and therefore predisposed to skip ads altogether -- admitted there might be room for ad-viewing in our lives if the ads were actually relevant to OUR lives.
The key thing, of course, is transparency: Customers need to know what their network operators are doing. And that's what Verizon is being dinged for by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) : failing to let its customers know their activity was being tracked. Verizon says it has cleaned up its policies and its act in that regard.
In the eight years since that Verizon tech tour, I've stopped watching ads almost entirely, except when I'm watching live sports or news shows, and I sometimes manipulate my viewing to even eliminate those. And I'm hardly alone -- it's what people love about streaming video services such as Netflix and the convenience of their DVRs.
I have to wonder what would have happened -- or still could happen -- if there was a service that, with consumer permission, delivered content either free or at a lower cost, while targeting ads to a subscriber's preferences, based on their Internet browsing. Subscribers would have to have direct ability to edit their perceived preferences; otherwise they'd often be watching ads for the car they'd just purchased or the trip they'd just booked, as often happens today on the Internet.
right here on Light Reading.
But the core technology is still interesting to me and I think it would be to many consumers. We're not afraid of sharing information and for most of us that includes our web browsing history, if there is benefit to us in the bargain and if transparency and privacy rules are carefully followed. Unfortunately, with every breach of trust such as Verizon's recent faux pas, there may be less consumer willingness to explore such options.
— Carol Wilson, Editor-at-Large, Light Reading