Charter Communications delays use of NebuAd snooping tool


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Internet service provider Charter Communications said today it would delay indefinitely the use of a controversial tool for tracking where its customers go on the Web.

Charter had planned to test such a service from Silicon valley start-up NebuAd, but came under immediate fire from privacy advocates and members of Congress. ‘Some of our customers have presented questions about this service as well as suggested improvements. As such, we are not moving forward with the pilots at this time,’ Charter wrote in an e-mailed statement.


NebuAd’s system is designed to show more relevant advertisements to consumers, based on where they go on the Net. For example, someone who visits a lot of travel sites might see more ads touting deals on hotels or airfare. But Internet service providers have more information about their customers than any advertising network can have, so the idea raised questions about the use and security of the data.

Rep. Edward J. Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat who chairs the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, said in a statement today:

Given the serious privacy concerns raised by the sophisticated ad-serving technology Charter Communications planned to test market, I am pleased to hear that the company has decided to delay implementation of this program, which electronically profiled individual consumer Web usage. I urge other broadband companies considering similar user profiling programs to similarly hold off on implementation while these important privacy concerns can be addressed.

Privacy groups argue that the snooping is tantamount to wiretapping, and their rhetoric got a boost from a recent report that showed that NebuAd doesn’t just track behavior but also interferes with Net communications in order to leave cookies on consumer PCs.

Jeff Chester, of NebuAd foe the Center for Digital Democracy, said the pressure on Charter to drop the initiative might have been intensified by the battle over network neutrality. Internet service providers, which want to slow some forms of Net traffic and speed others, already are taking criticism on enough aspects of their plans without baiting privacy enthusiasts, Chester said.

-- Joseph Menn

Image by husin.sani via Flickr