AT&T mobility CEO calls for ‘level playing field’ in advertising market

SEATTLE – A top AT&T executive reiterated the carrier’s argument against privacy rules that would regulate wireless network operators differently from internet companies like Google and Facebook.

“There always should be a level playing field,” argued AT&T’s Glenn Lurie, president and CEO of the operator’s Mobility and Consumer Operations business. Lurie made his comments here at the Mobile Future Forward conference, held by longtime wireless industry analyst Chetan Sharma.

When questioned whether AT&T would leverage its customers’ information to provide targeted advertisements, Lurie first said the operator would ensure its customers’ privacy would be respected. “We’ve always been very, very transparent about our policy,” he said. “We have earned the trust of our customers and we have to keep that trust.”

Nonetheless, AT&T has noted that its $49 billion acquisition of DirecTV, which closed last year, was in part an effort to grow its advertising business. Indeed, AT&T last week said it will expand its AdWorks advertising offering later this year to help advertisers target consumers across 14 million homes and 30 million mobile devices. The expansion will include ad inventory on an overhauled DirecTV mobile app, which enables subscribers of the satellite TV provider to access live and recorded content based on their home TV subscriptions.

But AT&T’s efforts to grow its advertising business could be affected by the FCC’s proposed rules for mobile and fixed-line internet service providers (ISPs) geared toward protecting consumers' privacy. The commission in April voted to consider requiring ISPs to ask consumers to opt in to any sharing of their data with third parties and to disclose their data-collection and data-sharing policies. The rules would also strengthen disclosure requirements when data breaches occur.

Proponents say the rules are necessary to provide more transparency to ISPs' policies regarding consumer data.

But wireless carriers have argued against such rules, noting they are more stringent than those applied by the FTC on advertising giants like Google and Facebook. Indeed, earlier this month Lurie and other top AT&T executives met with FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler and other FCC officials to urge the commission to implement a privacy framework similar to how the FTC addresses the topic of data collection for advertising. “AT&T reiterated its position that privacy law should not treat similar technologies within the communications sector differently and that customers consumers [sic] expect to have their information protected based on the sensitivity of that information, not the entity that's collecting it,” the carrier wrote in an FCC filing detailing the meeting.

The issue is a serious one for AT&T. Moody’s warned that the FCC’s proposed action could significantly affect the ability of wireless carriers to generate cash from advertising. “Wireless carriers have the potential to generate significant advertising revenues due to their ability to precisely target ads to wireless subscribers. But, if the FCC restricts the carriers' ability to collect data, the advertising revenue opportunity will be reduced,” the ratings firm wrote in March.

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