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ISPs Track Web Behavior Without Permission: Privacy Legislation Here We Come

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It's no secret that Internet service providers like Google or Comcast log user Web traffic. But apparently quite a few of them are using the information they collect about their users to deliver targeted advertising, and they're doing so without the users' permission.

 

The Washington Post reported Tuesday that some Web firms that participated in a bi-partisan congressional inquiry on the issue admitted they don't always have explicit consent to use the data as it's being used. For example, Google says it has started using the DoubleClick ad-serving cookie, but doesn't ask users to "opt in" to the targeted advertising program. Instead, the company allows users to opt out. Google representatives point out that the company does not use deep-packet inspection technology.

 

Companies like NebuAd have at least tested the technology with broadband providers, the story says. Specifically, Cable One and Knology tested deep-packet inspection without informing users. A Cable One representative told the Washington Post, however, that it doesn't plan to use the technology and that if it did, it would want users to opt in first.

 

The widescale sharing of information across different networks scares some lawmakers, who are raising privacy concerns. Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) is a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which conducted the inquiry. He says he and colleagues will introduce legislation including an online privacy bill of rights next year.

Our responsibility is to make sure that we create a law that, regardless of the technology, includes a set of legal guarantees that consumers have with respect to their information.

He noted that such legislation should include a specific requirement that Web companies must get explicit consent from users (via an opt-in process) before tracking their online behavior and then sharing that information with third parties.

 

There are two sides to every argument, however. On the other side of this one is Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.). He noted that such measures would hurt smaller companies' chances of reaching customers, which could further harm the economy. Stearns advocated "self-regulation that focuses on transparency" instead.

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