Advocacy Groups Coalesce to Fight NebuAd

Behavioral tracking and online ad firm NebuAd suffered a blow earlier this week, when Charter Communications back-pedaled on an agreement to test the company’s behavior tracking technology in a handful of markets.

The Internet and cable services provider said its very public reversal was motivated by the objections of some subscribers; the company may also have been cowed by the public disapproval of two Congressmen who said the technology “raises several red flags.”

Now NebuAd, its competitors and the ISPs that would work with them are facing new adversity, in the form of a loose coalition of Internet watchdogs that have bent their will toward fighting this new breed of comprehensive behavioral targeting.

At least six advocacy groups have banded together to share information, conduct legal analysis, and meet with officials on Capitol Hill.

The coalition brings together a significant number of Net policy groups, including the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT), the Center for Digital Democracy (CDD), Public Knowledge, and Free Press. The groups represent issues ranging from consumer privacy to media decentralization and Net neutrality, the push for guaranteed Internet access to all content at the same speed.

“The entry of ISPs into targeted advertising has united two segments of the consumer advocacy community that up until now have not been working together,” said Jeff Chester, executive director at CDD. “What’s happened now is that the privacy advocates have joined forces with the groups that have been working on Net neutrality to form a loose coalition of lawyers and lobbyists to focus on the issue.”

The specific activities of the coalition include conducting legal analysis and providing information to the House Commerce Committee and one another. Their interactions have been conducted mainly through e-mail and in-person meetings.

“There are legal prohibitions on intercepting [Internet] traffic without consent to the parties of that traffic,” said Peter Eckersley, staff technologist for the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Additionally, two of those groups involved, Public Knowledge and Free Press, last week issued a damning technical report on NebuAd’s user tracking system. They concluded NebuAd’s technology violates Web and privacy standards by intercepting users’ online communications and injecting data packets into site owners’ cookies unbeknownst to either party.

“These practices — committed upon users with the paid-for cooperation of ISPs — violate several fundamental expectations of Internet privacy, security and standards-based interoperability,” wrote author Robert Topolski, who spent 25 years working in software testing and network protocols for Intel and Quarterdeck.

Six months ago NebuAd might have hoped to avoid this kind of attention.

Back then, the firm had begun its user tracking and behavioral advertising system with numerous Internet service providers, and had experienced no significant backlash. It had reached out to the Federal Trade Commission, begun to staff up in ad sales, and despite mainstream media coverage of its intensive behavioral tracking methods, appeared to have dodged the hue and cry that have dogged its U.K. counterpart and rival, Phorm.

It was Charter’s public announcement that it would test the NebuAd system in four markets (San Luis Obispo, Ca; Fort Worth, TX; Oxford, MA and Newtown, CT) that appeared to trigger the current spike in negative attention. Shortly after the cable company’s statement, Democratic and Republican Congressmen raised concerns. Now that Charter has smothered its plans, those same Congressmen have predictably praised the move.

Another ISP to conduct pilots of NebuAd technology is CenturyTel. Reached yesterday, a CenturyTel spokesperson said a regional trial begun last year has been completed and was deemed a success from a technology standpoint. “Right now we are evaluating and have not made any final decisions,” she said.

CenturyTel’s spokesperson argued the telco should not be lumped in with Charter, since the legal concerns raised so far have tended to focus on laws governing cable companies, in particular the Cable Communications Policy Act. CenturyTel is a DSL high-speed Internet provider.

“Charter is a cable company and we are not,” she said.

Yet while ISP-initiated user tracking is clearly having a gloomy moment, many have speculated the vendors and their interested ISP partners may benefit by simply waiting out the current bad vibes.

“This is a temporary strategic retreat on the part of Charter and the Cable industry while they both increase the amount of money they pay their lobbyists and figure out a strategic approach to handle data collection,” claimed CDD’s Chester.

NebuAd declined an interview request but did say in a statement it hoped to advance its vision and business model.

“We remain committed to driving strong value to advertisers, publishers, and ISPs while setting the gold standard for privacy in online advertising,” the statement said.

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