The FTC's popular Do Not Call page has been a runaway hit with US consumers, with over five million signing up to avoid spam calls from telemarketers. But the web site hides a little secret: a web bug.
Most users won't be aware that the registry hosts a one pixel by one pixel image: a popular tracking ploy. And where does trail lead but back to AT&T, one of the most persistent telemarketers.
The FTC confirmed that AT&T Managed Services is its contractor, and hosts the website. When we asked if the FTC would consider removing the bug, they promised to call us back.
"How could this not be a conflict of interest?" asks James 'Kibo' Parry, who drew our attention to the tracking device. "It seems highly questionable for the 'Do Not Call' Web site to be providing visitor statistics to (or at least collecting visitor statistics via) a phone company.
"Undoubtedly the Federal government has bought Web hosting from AT&T from many years, and they're probably a very good hosting company for large-scale projects like this.
"But in this case, it seems like a major conflict of interest to place this "do not call" list in the care of a company that is in the business of selling their services through telemarketing (most of the telemarketing calls I get are from phone companies), and of course AT&T sells phone service to other companies who use the phone to call people.
"The important thing to understand is that it would be in AT&T's interest to know as much as possible about the popularity of the 'do not call' list and the demographic makeup of its members in advance of the list's publication and distribution to AT&T's competitors. For AT&T to know 'this list is going to be extraordinarily popular' in advance of the FTC releasing that news, or for AT&T to know "households in New York are more likely to be on this list than households in California" before their competitors do, that's worth money,"
AT&T, he notes, is notorious for aggressive marketing and "they seem to be going out of their way to share certain data (via the Web bug) with a second division of that same company for unknown reasons. There isn't any evidence proving they _are_ up to anything improper, but this relationship between the FTC and AT&T fails to avoid the potential for impropriety."
There is a clear conflict of interest here between the FTC wanting to regulate the activity of corporations such as AT&T, and AT&T being put in charge of collecting and maintaining this list, he says.
Here's the offending code:-
"I think you're barking up the wrong tree, Mr Orlowski," an FTC spokesperson told us when asked about the relationship.
Another spokesperson pointed us to the contract and said that AT&T Government Solutions was not permitted to share information with AT&T, the phone company. The site is managed by AT&T Managed Services.
AT&T Government Solutions won the $3.5 million contract to build the registry in February. The FTC says the process fulfilled tendering requirements but would not disclose who else had bid. ®