House Members Ask ISPs About Ad Targeting Practices

A slew of ISPs and four of the Internet’s largest firms, AOL, Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo, have until Friday to respond to a House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee. The Telecommunications and the Internet Subcommittee wants Internet service providers including Cablevision, Charter Communications, Cox Communications, Time Warner Cable, AT&T, CenturyTel, Verizon, and others to describe their online tracking and ad targeting activities.

Representatives Joe Barton of Texas, John Dingell of Michigan, Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Cliff Stearns of Florida are concerned about “the growing trend of companies tailoring Internet advertising based upon consumers’ Internet search, surfing, or other use,” according to the letter signed by them and sent August 1. “We are interested in the nature and extent to which you engage in such practices and the impact it could have on consumer privacy.”

House and Senate Members have expressed increasing interest in the tracking of consumer Web interaction by ISPs for ad targeting purposes. The extensive recipient list of Friday’s missive indicates the concern stems mainly from relationships some ISPs have formed with ad targeting technology firms such as NebuAd, which enables ad targeting using data collected through ISPs. However, NebuAd and its competitors were not named in the letter.

“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,” said Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Dingell in a statement sent to ClickZ News.

Around 30 telecom firms, along with the largest search firms — AOL, Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo — were asked to respond to a series of questions about if and how they engage in or facilitate the “tailoring” of ads to Web users. One question, for instance, asks whether ad targeting is limited “with respect to health, financial or other sensitive personal data.”

The congressmen also asked what communities and how many consumers have been affected by such ad practices, if and how they were notified, and whether and for what duration data is stored.

Representatives Markey and Barton were the first U.S. government officials to publicly show interest in the ISP ad targeting trend. In May, after Charter Communications went public with its intent to work with NebuAd, the two lawmakers sent a letter to Charter suggesting the telecom’s plans to divulge user data to NebuAd for ad targeting purposes “raises several red flags.”

Pressure from Congress and consumer privacy advocates appears to have an impact. About a month ago, both Charter Communications and ISP CenturyTel decided not to move forward with plans to work with NebuAd. Congressmen Markey, Dingell, and Barton also requested information in July about Embarq’s early testing of NebuAd’s ad targeting system. While CenturyTel and Charter were on the list of recipients of Friday’s letter, Embarq was not.

The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation last month held a hearing on the “Privacy Implications of Online Advertising,” during which NebuAd Chairman and CEO Robert Dykes stressed the company tracks only non-personally identifiable data, provides prior notice about its tracking activity, and allows users to opt-out before or after tracking begins.

The House committee last month also held a hearing regarding the privacy implications of deep packet inspection, the technology employed by NebuAd and others firms using ISP data to target ads. No further Energy and Commerce Committee hearings are scheduled regarding the issue

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