We have long pointed out that deep-packed inspection can be used by ISPs to both eavesdrop on users and undermine the neutrality of the Internet. Via Wired and other sources we learn that “Charter Communications, one of the nation’s largest ISPs, plans to begin eavesdropping on the web surfing of its customers, in order to help web advertisers deliver targeted ads. In letters being sent to some of its 2.7 million high-speed internet customers, Charter is billing its new web tracking program as an “enhancement” for customers’ web surfing experience. The letters were first reported by a BroadbandReports.com user on Sunday. The pilot program is set to begin next month.”Charter, using language straight out of Orwell’s 1984, claims it’s offering an “enhanced” service. Demonstrating its monopoly clout, Charter is imposing this service on an opt-out basis. Charter will be using, notes Wired, NebuAd. Here’s what NebuAd says it does (our emphasis): “NebuAd delivers the most actionable consumer intelligence by extending its reach dynamically to encompass the ever-growing network of sites that consumers visit. NebuAd combines this web-wide view of pages navigated, searches performed, ads clicked, etc., with the industry’s most accurate targeting capabilities, matching consumer interests across more than 1,000 categories…The result is behavioral advertising on a vast scale with a level of relevance that drives significantly improved response and engagement rates across all categories of advertisements.”
Here’s what NebuAd told Behavioral Insider magazine last November (excerpt, our emphasis): “The kind of data we do aggregate includes Web search terms, page views, page and ad clicks, time spent on specific sites, zip code, browser info and connection speed…within this vast universe of information we create a map of interest categories, beginning with the widest definitions, auto, finance, education, what have you. But within those we can provide far greater granularity. So if you’re talking about auto, we can drill down into particular interest segments, say SUVs, luxury cars, minivans, and then even to particular brands or models. Within the interest category of travel, we can identify consumers interested in learning about Martinique, the south of France or Las Vegas.”…“ISPs have been a neglected aspect of online’s evolution over the past several years. But the fact is the depth of aggregated data they have to offer, anonymous data, is an untapped source of incredible power… The conventional approach to behavioral targeting has been to place cookies on specific Web sites or pages. We’ve gone about it in a very different way. We place an appliance in the ISP itself. Therefore we’re able to get a 360-degree, multidimensional view over a long period of time of all the pages users visit. So what we’re really talking about for the first time is a truly user-focused, though still anonymous, targeting, taking the totality of anonymous behaviors rather than just a subset of sites on a network.” Here’s what NebuAd said in a November 2007 release: “NebuAd’s rich insight into consumer interests surpasses any other behavioral targeting solution and enables NebuAd to deliver precisely targeted ads that drive substantially increased value per impression…NebuAd’s deep insight into anonymous consumer commercial interests across the Internet, combined with its ability to micro-target the most relevant ad placements, brings a new level of value for advertisers, publishers and ISPs:..ISPs, who have up to now facilitated but barely participated in online advertising opportunities, can open new revenue streams that complement advertiser and publisher objectives to maximize revenue and generate higher revenue-per-subscriber.”
Both the FTC and FCC must investigate Charter’s plan (and other ISP’s permit snopping schemes. Congress needs to hold oversight hearings as well). ISPs should not be in the business of letting online marketers have access to the rich informational personal data streams of their customers. Broadband providers such as Charter get paid handsomely already by their subscribers for connectivity (and also benefit from their monopoly status to secure lucrative `bundle’ packages from consumers). Charter, which has a checkered financial history, should not be allowed to weaken the privacy rights of U.S. consumers. Paul Allen, Charter’s chairman and the co-founder of Microsoft, should do better than this.