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Congress wants to know how much Internet providers know about you

August 1, 2008 |  3:25 pm

Watchdog The leaders of a powerful congressional committee  today wrote to the largest U.S. Internet service providers, asking whether they have snooped on their customers' Web habits and what they have done with the information.

The letter (download a Word document here) from the senior Democrats and Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee to AT&T, Comcast, AOL and 30 others follows a July hearing and their grilling of Embarq, a Kansas-based service provider that has tested personalized data collection. Among those getting letters were top search companies Google, Yahoo and Microsoft.

Embarq used software from a Silicon Valley start-up, NebuAd, as have other ISPs. One of the larger clients, Charter, dropped NebuAd under the glare of congressional scrutiny. It's unclear how many other ISPs engage in similar profiling with the massive data they have on hand. Historically, ad networks have done most of the spying aimed at targeting ads to consumers. But they have far less information than the people who provide the basic pipes for all Internet communications.

"The committee is interested in learning how pervasive this practice is among cable, phone and Internet companies, what safeguards are in place to ensure that consumers are aware of the practice and how best to preserve their privacy," Rep. John D. Dingell, a Michigan Democrat who is chairman of the committee, said in a written statement.

The committee is officially trying to learn if any of the targeting practices violate wiretapping and other anti-snooping laws. But the sheer exposure of what might otherwise be relegated to the fine print in user agreements might be enough to convince many more ISPs to drop their projects.

-- Joseph Menn

Photo: An actual watchdog on duty. Credit: fergie_lancealot via Flickr