ISP backs off behavioral ad plan

Privacy groups praise Charter Communications for suspending targeted ads

WASHINGTON — Charter Communications Inc., one of the largest providers of cable-based broadband service in the U.S., has backed off a plan to insert advertisements onto Web pages based on its users' Web-surfing habits. Privacy advocates had called the program an "attack on users."

Charter said yesterday that it has suspended a pilot program to use NebuAd Inc., a behavioral advertising vendor, to track its users' Web-surfing habits and deliver advertising based on that information. Charter's decision comes less than a week after two digital rights groups, Public Knowledge and Free Press, accused NebuAd and participating broadband service providers of using security exploits to spy on users.

Charter's original focus groups on the targeted advertising suggested that most customers would "look upon this service favorably," Charter said in a statement. However, since then, customers have raised questions and suggested improvements to the program, the company said.

"Our customers are always our first priority," Charter said in its statement. "As such, we are not moving forward with the pilots at this time. We will continue to take a thoughtful, deliberate approach with the goal to ultimately structure an advertising service that enhances the Internet experience for our customers and addresses questions and concerns they've raised."

In addition to raising concerns among privacy groups, Charter's plan prompted a mid-May letter from two senior members of the U.S. House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee, with the lawmakers also questioning the plan.

Charter, based in St. Louis, announced in May that it was planning to use NebuAd to roll out a targeted ad program that would track users' Web activity in order to deliver "relevant" ads.

The study by Free Press and Public Knowledge accused NebuAd of hijacking browsers, employing man-in-the-middle attacks, modifying the content of TCP/IP packets and loading subscribers' computers with unwanted cookies.

NebuAd denied those claims, saying that it allows users to opt out of its advertising at any time and that it uses industry-standard cookies, not exploits, to deliver the targeted ads.

Public Knowledge praised Charter's decision to suspend the targeted ad plan.

"However, Charter's statement leaves room for participation at a future time," said Gigi Sohn, Public Knowledge's president. "Should Charter decide to enter into commercial arrangements with NebuAd, it should be on the basis that NebuAd will not intercept customers' data and plant false code in it. At the same time, 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."

Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a privacy and digital rights group, also applauded Charter for ending its targeted ad program. Charter may have gotten pressure from other cable broadband providers, which are looking at their own targeted advertising plans, he said.

Chester praised Reps. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Joe Barton (R-Texas) for raising concerns about the targeted advertising plan in their May letter to Charter.

"This is a major victory for privacy advocates, delivered by two powerful political leaders from opposite sides of the aisle," Chester said. "ISPs should not be allowed to cross the line in the digital sand that would permit them to engage in unprecedented surveillance of consumers. Congressmen Markey and Barton are privacy heroes."

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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