Thursday, September 13, 2007

David Lazarus Emerging As A Potent LAT Columnist

The late columnist I.F. Stone used to be famous for carefully reading dry documents, finding revealing gems within them, and then regaling his readers with all kinds of underlying truths and useful information.

Apparently, David Lazarus, the new consumer columnist for the L.A. Times, has the same skills, and this is good news for Times readers. Lazarus came to the paper recently from the languishing San Francisco Chronicle, where he was chosen "Journalist of the Year" by two organizations, including the Consumer Federation of California.

In accord with the new L.A. Times policy of bringing some of its outstanding columnists out from their usual sections onto Page 1, Lazarus has recently been escaping the paper's Business section and hitting the big time. His column Wednesday on the "privacy policy" of Time Warner Cable was one such instance and an extremely fortuitous one. And about all Lazarus had to do was read with care the 3,000-word "privacy policy" statement of that company.

Time Warner Cable has about 2 million customers in Southern California, and, under its "privacy policy" it can collect information about them, based on such things as their "search" choices on the Internet, and, if it wishes, sell the information gathered to myriads of marketers, who can then pester these customers forever with sales pitches.

And, according to the "privacy policy," which Lazarus has so carefully read, it's no use to quit being a Time Warner customer; it can keep the information it has gathered about you for 15 years and sell it all that time, if it wishes.

If you happen to dip into pornography on the net, you may be hearing in the future from every pornographer in the United States.

(In the interest of disclosure, I should acknowledge that I own hundreds of shares of Time Warner stock and will certainly sell it if it goes up in price. In recent months, however, it has been drifting downward in price, and, in any case, I don't think this blog is going to help it any more than Lazarus' column did yesterday. I am not a Time Warner customer. I did have the company come out to the house a few months back to establish a fast Internet connection, but when the workmen told me they would have to chop through my driveway to run a line to my computer, I sent them packing).

Now, Lazarus did speak to one Craig Goldberg, Time Warner's "chief privacy officer," who told him that at present the company does not sell the information it gathers on its customers, and that if it does so in the future, the customers will have the opportunity to opt out.

"Easier said than done," Lazarus remarked in his column. "Time Warner requires customers to opt out in writing. Its privacy policy doesn't include a mailing address."

Mailing address, e-mail address, or whatever, I've had a tough time recently with two companies which I have notified repeatedly to stop contacting me. In-stat has a box you can check and you then get a message saying they are taking you off their lists. But within weeks you are back on their lists. The Omaha steak company keeps sending me brochures all the time despite the fact I notified them months ago I was through with their overpriced steaks and resented their constant advertising. So the experience Lazarus is reporting with Time Warner Cable not giving you an address to opt out is nothing new. A public hanging of such a company's executives would certainly be in order. Then, they might get the point.

To be precise, just what kind of information is Time Warner Cable collecting?

"There are red flags to be found in each telecom provider's privacy policy," Lazarus observes. "A close reading of Time Warner's policy reveals:

* Along with knowing juicy details of your calling and viewing habits -- those 900 numbers, say, or that subscription to Playboy Channel -- the company keeps track of 'Internet addresses you contact and the duration of your visits to such addresses.

* Time Warner not only compiles 'information about how often and how long' you're online, but also 'purchases that you have made' via the company's Road Runner portal, which provides access to thousands of goods.

* On top of that, the company may monitor 'information you publish' via the Road Runner portal, which should send a chill through anyone who accesses his or her e-mail through Time Warner's servers."

Well, this is just a sample of the highly instructive nature of this column, and, as a person who rarely reads all the fine print in these documents, I'm glad we have Lazarus to do it for us.

It looks like he is going to be great not only for Times readers, but also for the Times itself. The paper can certainly stand to be more interesting. If it is, it may even recover some of the circulation it has lost.

One small qualifier: I too was once named "Journalist of the Year" by the Consumer Federation of California. It didn't protect me when my column got too hot for John Carroll, then editor of the Times, and he cancelled it.

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