Internet service providers engaged in the tracking of user behavioral patterns are backpedaling in the wake of a new Congressional inquiry into the privacy issues surrounding such practices.
In a letter addressing questions from members of the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, David Hantman, Yahoo's vice president of global policy, said his company realizes that some Web surfers would prefer not to receive customized online ads. As a result, the search engine giant will allow consumers to decline ads based on the tracking of their online behavior at Yahoo.com.
"We want to offer them transparency and choice about the options that are available to them," Hantman explained. "This is in addition to our existing opt-out when Yahoo serves customized advertising on third-party networks."
When Yahoo serves up ads for partners such as eBay or a consortium of nearly 800 newspapers, users can choose to opt-out of receiving customized ads, either by clicking on a link posted on the ad itself or at the partner site, Hantman noted. "We believe this is particularly important, since it is not always obvious to all users that ads are served by different entities among Web sites."
Three broadband providers have informed the Subcommittee that they had recently run trials of a new technology known as deep-packet inspection, which tracks and stores information about the online behavior of individual Web users. CenturyTel and Knology said their respective trials of NebuAd's controversial tracking software came to an end about the same time that Congress began to scrutinize such practices.
For its part, Cable One claimed that the trials it ran late last year were conducted in a manner "consistent with the terms of the provider's existing customer notices and Acceptable Use Policy, which our customers must expressly accept to activate their broadband Internet access service."
Charter Communications, which came under fire earlier this year for its plans to conduct tests of NebuAd's technology, recently told the Subcommittee that it had abandoned its pilot project plans. Cable One likewise now says it has decided not to deploy behavioral tracking on a commercial basis. Moreover, even if Cable One had decided to go ahead, it would have taken "additional steps to protect our customers' privacy, including confirming their interest in receiving tailored advertisements and by securing an additional opt-in consent from them," said Philip Jimenez, an associate general counsel at Cable One.
A Fairy Tale
However, consumer watchdogs such as the Center for Digital Democracy note that none of the three broadband providers had meaningfully informed their subscribers prior to launching their respective trials.
Other broadband service providers used their subcommittee responses as a forum for "glossing over" the extent of their respective behavioral targeting practices and capabilities, Chester noted.
"You would never know reading AOL's letter, for example, that it acquired behavioral targeting leader Tacoda last year," explained Chester. "AOL's letter to the Hill is a fairy-tale version of the targeting it can do," he said.