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Double trouble?

National | FTC clears DoubleClick, FCC fears interactive TV, and other technology news

Issue: "One president, under God," Feb. 3, 2001

Privacy please
Is DoubleClick off the hook? Privacy activists often complain about the New York-based Internet advertising company, saying its technology won't mind its own business. But the FTC closed its investigation into the company's data collection practices. You may never have heard of DoubleClick, but you've probably seen its handiwork when you surf the Web. Think of it as a middleman between Web publishers and advertisers. Sponsors buy ads from DoubleClick, which in turn places them on its network of 1,500 sites that use the service. The agency places a tiny file called a cookie on users' hard drives to identify them and control what ads are presented. Where things get interesting is with the company's $1.7 billion purchase of direct marketing company Abacus. DoubleClick planned to cross-reference its records of consumers' online habits with an Abacus database that includes names and other identifying data. That idea drew heated protest and was scrapped. The Washington-based Electronic Privacy Information Center accused DoubleClick of seeking to collect dossiers on private citizens who were told that information collected about them would remain confidential. DoubleClick defended its marketing practices and set up a website at privacychoices.org that lets people opt out of targeted ads. Now the company has apparently withstood government scrutiny. FTC official Joel Winston wrote DoubleClick's attorney, Christine A. Varney-herself a former FTC commissioner-that the company "never used or disclosed" consumers' personal identifying information "for purposes other than those disclosed in its privacy policy." Ultimate talk show
Out of the AOL-Time Warner merger comes a new clamor from federal regulators. The FCC plans to pay more attention to interactive TV, a product that scarcely exists-for now. When Internet and cable service finally collide into a combined service, many expect it to be huge. The sleeping giant of interactive TV is supposed to awaken and transform what we watch. We'll be able to talk back to the tube! Since AOL-Time Warner has so much power over content, Internet products, and cable service, this raises some eyebrows about possible market domination. So the Feds, who were caught napping in the dot-com boom, want to be sure they get in on the ground floor of this revolution. Some lobbyists worry that the TV of the future will be one big AOL service: a limited network that constantly drives users to its own content and away from competitors. In its own way this will be like the Microsoft fight all over again, with Steve Case, Jerry Levin, and Bob Pittman replacing Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer in the Rogue's Gallery. But even if the FCC started recommending regulations now, they would take months to become official. Since nobody knows what next-generation TV will look like, this debate could play out for years-thus indefinitely justifying the budgets for both regulators and lobbyists. Right now there are all sorts of competing ideas for next-generation TV, involving video game systems, pay-per-view, satellite dishes, high-speed data lines, widescreen sets, and a variety of premium services. Meanwhile, the average American seems content with last-generation TV: the color set, VCR, and cable TV that became dominant in the 1980s. Information a la I-mode
One of the hottest ways to talk over the Internet has over 17 million subscribers-and isn't even available in the United States? The service is called "i-mode," and it uses mobile phones to surf and talk. It's the biggest thing in Japan since the Walkman. While wireless e-mail prompts mild enthusiasm in the United States, i-mode is storming Japan, a country where one in two people owns a mobile phone. For up to $88 a month, users get games, e-mail, some websites, and news headlines on a screen the size of two postage stamps. There's nothing special about i-mode's technology, but its success is the talk of the world. I-mode's owner, NTT DoCoMo, is pressing forward into Europe later this year and eventually into the United States. To help prepare for the invasion, the company bought 16 percent of AT&T Wireless. It also made a deal with America Online; AOL Japan is being renamed DoCoMo AOL. And a new version of i-mode uses Java programming for faster, more elaborate service. I-mode's international future is the subject of much discussion. Americans are more PC-oriented than the Japanese and have high expectations even from portable gizmos. The stock quotes, bank balances, and restaurant reviews that helped make the system popular are old hat here. And part of i-mode's popularity involves heavy use of cutesy icons, jingles, and cartoon characters that may not play well in the West. Whether or not i-mode conquers the world, similar systems will eventually become as commonplace as car radios. As service and equipment become cheaper, cyberspace will soon be our constant companion.

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