By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 25, 2008
Charter Communications, the fourth-largest cable operator in the United States, announced yesterday that it has backed off a plan to monitor customers' Internet transmissions.
The company had been planning to harvest the stream of data from each Internet customer for clues to their interests and then make money from advertisers who would use the information to target online pitches.
The data-collection effort would have protected personal information, Charter officials said in describing the plan, but critics likened the practice to wiretapping.
"The fact is that it would have allowed profiling of an individual -- where they were going and what they were doing online, and there was no guarantee that this information could not ultimately be compromised," said Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on telecommunications and the Internet. "They made the right decision in halting their test."
The online behavior of a small but growing number of computer users in the United States is monitored by their Internet service providers, which have access to every click and keystroke. The companies involved say that no personally identifiable information is made vulnerable and that customer profiles are ordered not by name but by anonymous numbers.
Other, smaller Internet service providers have experimented with or are using systems to monitor customer traffic, a process known as deep packet inspection, but Charter was the largest company to announce such a plan.
Charter had anticipated testing the program in June in four cities -- Fort Worth; Oxford, Mass.; Newtown, Conn.; and San Luis Obispo, Calif.
But in a statement yesterday, the company said that although focus groups indicated that "most broadband consumers would look upon this service favorably . . . some of our customers have presented questions about this service. As such, we are not moving forward with the pilots at this time."
A company spokeswoman, Anita Lamont, said that while the monitoring plan has been put on hold "indefinitely," the company will "continue to look at these advertising services."
Bob Dykes, chief executive of NebuAd, the company providing the monitoring service to Charter, said his firm will work with Charter to create a system that can be adopted.
"It's clear we need further education in Washington and elsewhere to address the concerns of privacy advocates," Dykes said. The message that the technology protects privacy "hasn't been understood by everyone."
Deep packet inspection represents a significant expansion in the ability to track a household's Web use because it taps into Internet connections. Critics liken it to a phone company listening in on conversations.
Although common tracking systems, known as cookies, have counted a consumer's visits to a network of sites, the new monitoring enables a far broader view -- every Web page visited, every e-mail sent and every search query entered. Every bit of data is divided into packets, like electronic envelopes, that the system can analyze.
The extent of the practice is difficult to gauge because some service providers involved have declined to discuss their methods. Many affected Web users, moreover, probably have little idea that they are being monitored.
But at least 100,000 U.S. customers are tracked this way, and service providers covering 10 percent of subscribers in the United States have considered or tested the practice, according to tech companies involved in the data collection.
A report last week by two public interest groups, Free Press and Public Knowledge, identified five companies that use NebuAd's service: WOW, Embarq, Broadstripe, CenturyTel and Metro Provider.
"We call on other customers of NebuAd to follow Charter's lead and to stop doing business with a company that violates customers' privacy as well as established technical standards on the Internet," said Gigi B. Sohn, president and co-founder of Public Knowledge.
Charter also faced concerns from Markey and Rep. Joe L. Barton (R-Tex.), the top Republican on the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.
Markey and Barton met with Charter officials last week. The lawmakers had written a letter suggesting that such a technique could violate federal law.
"Charter isn't a fool -- they got the message," said Jeff Chester, director of the Center for Digital Democracy. Its proposal "crossed a digital line in the sand that up till now hadn't been challenged. Congress had accepted targeted Internet marketing, but the fact that ISPs were going to do it clearly had the potential of creating a firestorm."