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Groups appeal to Congress on ISP snooping

June 6, 2008 |  4:44 pm

A coalition of privacy groups today asked Congress to investigate Internet service providers that have begun tracking individual Web surfing in order to show targeted ads.

PrivacyThe Center for Democracy & Technology, Electronic Frontier Foundation and others urged the top Democrat and Republican on the House subcommittee on telecommunications to hold hearings on the nascent practice of Charter Communications.

Democratic Chairman Edward J. Markey  of Massachusetts and ranking Republican Joe L. Barton of Texas last month expressed concern about St. Louis-based Charter's move, which followed the testing of a similar system in Britain and a major controversy there.

The nonprofit privacy advocates are appalled because most consumers aren't aware of such tracking and because it represents a much greater intrusion than tracking cookies served up by Web advertising networks.

Internet service providers know everywhere a customer goes on the Web, but they haven't before tried to cash in on that information.

"The eavesdropping and targeting of consumers online by their cable and phone ISPs creates a major new privacy threat," said Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, another signatory to today's letter. (Download .pdf here.) Chester and others are concerned about the security of the information collected and the fact that the surfing practices of one family member could trigger unwanted ads shown to others in the household.

Like the British providers, Charter plans to send the information on its customers to an outside firm -- in this case venture-backed Silicon Valley firm NebuAd. Charter has said it would test the service in San Luis Obispo and elsewhere and notify the customers affected in writing, giving them a chance to opt out.

Charter spokeswoman Anita Lamont said that her company hopted to meet with Congressional staff this month to explain the project. "We really want to tell people what this is," she said. She said Charter, the fourth-largest U.S. cable operator, hasn't published anything on the pilot effort because it hasn't begun yet.

The tracking has received a little attention in the U.S., but not much -- yet.

-- Joseph Menn

Photo by rpongsaj via Flickr