Broadband Cable Association of Pennsylvania


August 15, 2012

A Commonwealth Court judge has ruled this morning in favor of the state's new law requiring photo identification at the polls, declaring that acquiring and presenting the ID cards is not an unconstitutional burden on voters. In his 70-page opinion, Judge Robert Simpson, who presided over a week-long hearing that sought to overturn the 5-month-old law, decided against granting an injunction that would have prevented the law from going into effect for the Nov. 6 general election. He wrote that opponents of the new law, who argued that too many voters currently lack and would not be able to acquire acceptable ID cards, "did not establish ... that disenfranchisement was immediate or inevitable." Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Read the complete Commonwealth Court opinion

Can a privacy law passed in the era of videotape rentals be applied in the era of Internet streaming?

Hulu, the online video content provider, is about to face the test. A lawsuit filed in a federal court in California says Hulu violated its users' privacy by sharing their viewing history with companies that could in turn offer them tailored advertisements. The case rests on a 1988 law, the Video Privacy Protection Act, intended to protect the privacy of video rental records. It was passed by Congress after a newspaper obtained records of what movies the conservative Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork had rented, and published an article based on them.

Hulu, which is owned by News Corporation, NBCUniversal, Providence Equity Partners and the Walt Disney Company, sought to have the case dismissed, noting that it is not a video rental business. Magistrate Judge Laurel Beeler concluded Friday that the law did not preclude application to "new technologies for prerecorded video content" and allowed the case to go ahead. Next comes the discovery of evidence and arguments. The judge has not yet ruled on the merits of the case.

The plaintiffs will seek to prove in court that Hulu violated their privacy by letting third-party companies track their movements across the Internet without their consent. To do so, Hulu allowed an analytics company, KISSmetrics, to place a "cookie" or code on their computers that included names, location preferences and programs watched. That information was in turn conveyed to other companies, from advertising networks to analytics companies to Facebook. "As to Facebook, Hulu included their Facebook IDs, connecting the video content information to Facebook's personally identifiable user registration information," the judge wrote.

Hulu has since discontinued using KISSmetrics, after two separate academic studies reported on the practice last year. Hulu declined to comment on whether or how it continued to share video consumption records with third parties for advertising or other purposes. The case could have repercussions for other video streaming services. For instance, Netflix, which allows users to stream movies online, wants to team up with Facebook to allow its users to share what movies they watch with their Facebook friends. Both companies have acknowledged that the Video Privacy Protection Act presents a hurdle. Both are lobbying to overturn the law. New York Times

If you're on Facebook and you or a Facebook friend "like" a political candidate's page, you could become a target and a tool of tailored political ads that might even include you or your friend's picture. As in "Obama for America" or "Romney for President" sending you an ad that says, "Your friend Sandy likes Obama/Romney. You will, too."

Even if you're not on Facebook, there's so much data about you that's available to marketers - where you live, what you buy, whether you vote, your political registration, your income, charitable donations, ethnicity, etc. - that you might get tailored political ads on your computer aimed specifically at your interests. Sound Orwellian? Well, this data-mining-for-targeted-ads practice is out there and growing. And - according to research by the Annenberg School of Communication at Penn - when it comes to politics, you don't like it.

Penn recently did the first-ever national survey on the issue, polling 1,500 adult Internet users. A whopping 86 percent said they don't want such political ads. If you'rethinking, "Hey, who wants online ads period?" think about this: That 86 percent is much higher than the 61 percent who told the surveyors they didn't want tailored ads for "products and services." And a majority of those opposed to targeted political ads (64 percent) say their support of a candidate is likely to decrease if they find that candidate's campaign is buying info about them.

Clearly campaigns bank on the fact that most folks have no idea how much personal data marketers can collect and sell for use in such ads. And while "microtargeting" isn't new, the Penn study says it's experiencing unprecedented growth, including on mobile phones and tablets. "It's hard to escape the conclusion that our survey is tapping into a deep discomfort over behavioral targeting and tailored advertising when it comes to politics. Political campaigning is moving in a direction starkly at odds with what the public believes should take place," the study says.

Penn professor Joseph Turow, lead researcher of the Annenberg effort, says there's more opposition to targetting with political ads than there is with regular ads, because "people take politics seriously [and] they don't want people tracking them." Still, such ads can be effective. Penn cites targeting used by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) that helped him beat Republican tea-party favorite Sharron Angle in 2010. His campaign individualized messages about health care and used Facebook to target young people and gays through profile data such as age and "relationship status."

In 2009, when New Jersey gubernatorial candidate Chris Christie was under fire from Gov. Jon Corzine for supporting cuts in health-care coverage, including mammograms, Christie's campaign, according to reports in the New York Times, targeted a Web ad to Republican women searching online info on breast cancer. Turow says, "It may work in the short term, but in the long term it may make many people bitter about the political process." Also, Turow notes, everything being done is protected by the First Amendment and the likelihood of government or congressional intervention is slim. "We're talking about a political-marketing industry being regulated by the very people who are hiring the political marketers," Turow says. So the practice seems to be here to stay.

Penn notes that people increasingly will be aware of it; they just won't know how pols define the interests of those getting the ads or what messages friends, neighbors, co-workers or those who disagree are getting. The study suggests "data-driven tailored political communication" may end up viewed as an anti-democratic way to practice democracy. This reminds me of a time, before the Internet and YouTube, when pols could safely say one thing to rural audiences and another to urbanites. Technology ended that. Newer technology is bringing it back - in even more selective ways. Philadelphia Daily News

In an Aug. 13 story about broadband service (in Tuesday's NewsClips), The Associated Press reported erroneously that the eight largest phone companies in the U.S. posted their first-ever loss of broadband subscribers in the second quarter of this year. They have collectively lost subscribers once before, in the second quarter of 2010. The loss then was 1,600 subscribers. Read the revised Associated Press article