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Telco 2.0 STL Partners' twice-yearly Telco 2.0 conference is held under Chatham House rules, which means the press can't attribute quotes to speakers without their permission. It's all about telcos finding new revenue opportunities, and it returned this week. One session starred a Well Known Web Advertising Intermediary very well known to Register readers. For the sake of brevity, we'll call them WKWAI.

The theme, as one presenter put it, was "moving from instrumenting the network, to instrumenting the customer". Data mining our activity for advertisers, in other words. Who better for this than our WKWAI?

The UK CEO of the WKWAI had had a tough year - "apologies to anyone close to our business," he said, bashfully. He was there to remind telcos that they were missing out on huge advertising opportunities - and his WKWAI could help. Over time, the WKWAI would allow advertisers to deliver more targeted and relevant advertising - and telcos and ISPs would see "a significant uplift for close to zero cost once installed".

The MC - and you'll twig that we're not exactly talking about a Jeremy Paxman-style inquisition here - asked the UK CEO of the WKWAI:

"You've had PR trouble this year, some real challenges, partly because journalists who have a short attention span have written stories like, 'INSERT TELCO NAME HERE snooping on their customers'. What have you learned? How do you communicate the opportunity to end-users?"

The UK CEO of the WKWAI replied:

"Yes, we've always maintained we want to be transparent to everybody. We've been very clear. Whether the model is opt-in or opt-out it should be transparent and clear."

"We've been this blue touchpaper for a debate that needed to happen. How do we fund the internet? How do content providers get paid for this? And there's also a privacy debate."

So according to the CEO, it was a bunch of nothing, all got up by the press.

"As the months have gone on the debate has become much more rational," he said. "Yes, there are some extremists out there who will throw stones. It's a complex technology and received understandings have clouded some of the issues."

I was mingling to see what the reaction from telco executives would be. And they're no fools, it turns out. The CEO WKWAI had stressed that the data intercepted by his company wasn't stored, and didn't identify the users.

One attendee scribbled back:

"[WKWAI]'s arguments about three pieces of data are all well and good, but AOL said the same thing when lots of its subscriber data leaked and indivuduals were identified."

There was more interest in getting traditional business intelligence functions to work efficiently, rather than "instrumenting the customer". Telcos know how to spell "churn".

Creepy questions don't solve operational problems

When Telco 2.0 launched it provided cult-like shock treatment (break them down, build them up again) for the reactionary telco mindset. The format, in which anonymous feedback streams back to the stage, helped stimulate some vigorous discussions.

These days it's much more about showbiz. Attendees noted that it was one vendor marketing pitch after another. The questions during the Web Advertising session were so vague, our table felt it impossible to answer them.

I discovered that it's not actually very helpful to attendees when the presenters receive only bumlickycrawly questions. Everyone in the room knew what trouble the WKWAI had got into - because the WKWAI caused its partner ISPs a public relations nightmare. Shooting the messenger suggest that they should do it all over again. That's not much of a Strategic Brainstorm.

Also, when speaking opportunities are set by vendor payola, the quality of speakers suffers greatly. This year they ranged from the brilliant (Page and co debunking The Long Tail) to the inane. I was already heading for the door during the Video Opportunities presentations when I heard the presenter ask:

"Has anyone here heard of Twitter?"

One attendee winked at me on the way out: "You picked a good time to leave," he said. ®

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