ISPs Respond to House Inquiry, Detail NebuAd Trials

The majority of firms contacted by a House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee earlier this month have responded to inquiries regarding their Web ad targeting practices. Most of the companies in question are Internet Service Providers, and most of those that responded said they don’t engage in the behavioral ad targeting practices the Congressmen asked about.

At least five of the nearly 30 ISPs asked to detail their online ad activities, however, have experimented with or come close to testing the practice of deep-packet inspection through relationships with NebuAd and possibly other third-party ad tech firms. Essentially, those companies deployed ad tracking and targeting technology, which uses data gleaned on ISP users’ online interactions, to aim ad network ads at them.

According to letters posted to the House of Representatives Web site, Bresnan Communications, CenturyTel, Cable One, and Knology tested such ad targeting technology. Charter Communications scheduled a test, but ended those plans.

Knology terminated its trials of NebuAd’s system as recently as July 14. The ISP began its tests in January with customers in West Point, Georgia, and branched out to Columbus, Augusta and Huntsville. According to its response to the House Telecommunications and the Internet Subcommittee, the company halted the months-long trial “in order to study the issues raised about the NebuAd system by your Committee, privacy advocates, and others.”

Pressure from Congress and consumer privacy advocates also pushed Charter Communications and CenturyTel to discontinue plans to work with NebuAd. CenturyTel had run NebuAd tests between November 2007 and June 2008, affecting about 20,000 subscribers in Kalispell, Montana and in some surrounding communities in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming.

Though it notified customers of intentions to do so, Charter doesn’t appear to have begun any tests. “[W]e are not moving forward with the pilots at this time,” wrote the company in its missive.

House and Senate Members have expressed increasing interest in the tracking of consumer Web interaction by ISPs for ad targeting purposes. “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 John Dingell of Michigan in a statement sent to ClickZ News about a week ago.

In their letters sent to ISPs — in addition to Yahoo, Google, Microsoft and AOL — the congressmen 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.

Although Bresnan and CenturyTel allowed its customers to directly opt-out of their NebuAd tests, Knology and CableOne did not notify customers explicitly, and CableOne did not allow for them to opt-out, according to their letters to the House Subcommittee. Unlike Bresnan and CenturyTel, which sent e-mail alerts, Knology notified consumers only through its customer service agreement, posted on its Web site.

CableOne, on the other hand, stated that its Acceptable Use Policy, agreed to by all users of its service, sufficed. As noted in its letter, the policy states, “Cable One may partner with ‘affiliates, partners and advertisers’ to collect anonymous information through cookies that can be used to provide them with information about ‘goods and services that may be of interest.'” The ISP tested NebuAd’s system with about 14,000 Anniston, Alabama customers for 180 days beginning November 20, 2007. The firm said it in the future it “does not intend to deploy commercially a technology that collects user data… to deliver tailored advertising without taking several additional steps beyond what the law requires.”

Enabling users to opt-out didn’t necessarily hinder Bresnan’s and CenturyTel’s trials. CenturyTel had only 82 opt-outs after informing them of NebuAd test plans via e-mail, and messages in their bills. Bresnan tested NebuAd from April 1 to June 26, 2008 on about 6,000 customers in Billings, Montana. Just 18 people opted-out of the program following e-mail and Web site notifications.

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