Web surfers can feel more secure about their clicks and Web purchases now that three of the nation's four largest Internet service providers have pledged to stop tracking users' behavior unless given permission by the user.
AT&T, Verizon, and Time Warner Cable officials testified Thursday before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee that they would not deliver ads based on consumer Web surfing.
'No Immediate Plans'
The move comes at a time when online advertising in the United States is booming. The U.S. market for online advertising is expected to hit $50.3 billion by 2011, more than doubling 2007 revenues, according to a January report by Yankee Group.
"While we have no immediate plans to offer online behavioral advertising, we believe that a key dimension of any such programs would be to give customers significant control over collection and use of their search and Web-browsing data for online advertising purposes, by requiring their advance affirmative consent," said Dorothy Atwood, AT&T's chief privacy officer.
AT&T customers would be required to give permission before the ISP collects and uses their information, would be told what is collected and for how long it is kept, and would have opportunities to change their mind, according to Atwood. Consumers' identities would also be protected.
Verizon Vice President Thomas Tauke told the committee that consumer trust is paramount in today's Internet economy and it is critical that consumers understand what kind of targeted advertising Web sites and their ISP use.
"If certain practices cause consumers to believe that their privacy will not be protected, or their preferences won't be respected, they will be less likely to trust their online services, and the tremendous power of the Internet to benefit consumers will be diminished," Tauke said.
He added that companies engaged in online behavioral advertising should agree to participate in a third-party certification process to show consumers they are doing what they say. "This process would confirm that companies are complying with and respecting consumers' expressed choices regarding such data collection."
Pointing at Google
Time Warner said it supports requiring customer consent, but added that it favors guidelines that apply to all businesses involved in targeted ads, including search giant Google.
Congress is focused on the wrong target, said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, who echoed Time Warner's comments.
"The real Internet problem for consumers is clearly the growing dominance of Google across a wide variety of Internet services, including, most recently, the browser Chrome," Rotenberg said. "If concern is protecting online privacy, then the hearings need to focus on Google's business practices."
There has been a lot of discussion on this topic since a trial of a targeted-ad service from NebuAd was used by ISPs to monitor, intercept and modify Internet packets. That led to the Senate investigation.
Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass), chairman of the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, has criticized NebuAd.
"The federal wiretap [law] currently prohibits ISPs from using message traffic for advertising," Rotenberg said. "Congressman Markey drew attention to the problem, and the companies -- i.e. NebuAd -- backed off."
But a legal exception in the federal wiretap law permitting ISPs to use traffic for advertising is the reason for the discussion about requiring users to opt in.
"In my opinion it is a mistake for Congress to encourage this," Rotenberg said. "If we agree that the current problem is that the mailman is looking at mail, and then opt in basically would make this okay, it does not make sense."