Today saw the first of at least two Congressional hearings concerning managing privacy on the web in relation to online advertising. The hearing today involved executives from Google, Facebook, Microsoft and startup NebuAd as well as the Federal Trade Commission and two public policy groups. For […]

Today saw the first of at least two Congressional hearings concerning managing privacy on the web in relation to online advertising. The hearing today involved executives from Google, Facebook, Microsoft and startup NebuAd as well as the Federal Trade Commission and two public policy groups. For a complete listing, check out the hearing, although it clocks in at about two hours and is very, very repetitive.

Everyone present agreed that advertising on the web is not bad because it allows for all this wonderful free content; they similarly concurred that consumers are both uncomfortable with some of the data collection that occurs online want information on how they can control that information. After that, though, there was little common ground to be found over issues including self-regulation, the way NebuAd tracks Internet usage for advertising, and how long personally identifiable data is stored on Microsoft’s and Google’s servers.

I was saddened by the FTC’s unwillingness to put forth any meaningful regulations or guidelines related to behavoiral advertising, or to really even get back into the conversation. I was also (and here’s where the hate mail will start) impressed with Bob Dykes of NebuAd and his defense of that firm’s privacy technology (yes I know NebuAd said it would adjust the technology just yesterday to make it more palatable).

While much of what the firm says must be taken at its word (at least until the audit Dykes promised back in May is completed), surfing habits are harder to pinpoint to an identifiable consumer using NebuAd’s technology than search engine data. That isn’t a ringing endorsement, but it’s something. A larger fear about NebuAd’s technology that wasn’t addressed in the hearing is how the startup secures the data from its ISP partners. I trust my ISP very little, and now even less since they’re close to being granted immunity from legal protests related to them sharing phone calls with the government.

And the threat of government prying was by far the most interesting aspect of the entire hearing. In an age of government surveillance, the personal data such as that collected by Google, NebuAd or even my ISP is frightening. If the government chooses, it can find my web surfing information — perhaps stripped of context, but not of my identity. In the worst-case scenario, my searches could end up as evidence against me before a dozen of my peers in a municipal or federal court.

Think I’m crazy, or maybe have something to hide? I would point you to the brush with the government writer Lawrence Wright had researching an article on the Middle East (bottom of page 11), or the fate of those caught in RIAA’s nets. For those less concerned with government interference and more focused on protecting their online privacy, the next Commerce Committee hearing on this topic will focus on ISPs. I can’t wait.

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  1. Disclosure, access, fair use and transparency should be at the basis for privacy (it should be similar to FCRA- Fair Credit Reporting Act)

    Or just a simple ‘privacy disclosure box’ vs a 30+ page T.O.S.
    My ideas before the 102nd Congress http://www.creditcard.org/testimony.htm

  2. I’ve been involved in the Internet privacy battles since 1997. The advice I give anyone who asks ? Fend for yourself. The government will never be able to regulate ever-changing technologies quickly enough, so all it can do is demand adequate notice, which it does. So users need to learn all they can about online marketers’ practices, decide if a practice is outside their personal comfort zone, and take appropriate action. The guide I’ve written and linked to my name tells users how to do just that.

  3. Newsflash: Congress Discovers that Web Firms Track Data – GigaOM Tuesday, August 12, 2008

    [...] Of Course the Government Cares About Your Privacy [...]

  4. Your Cable Box Knows You So Well – GigaOM Monday, August 25, 2008

    [...] Online privacy issues have attracted politicians in Europe and North America, who are trying to figure out the best ways to regulate such practices. Earlier this month the House Committee on Energy and Commerce sent out letters to more than 30 [...]

  5. While NebuAd Retreats, Phorm and BT Plow Ahead – GigaOM Thursday, September 4, 2008

    [...] 2008 at 12:09 PM PT Comments (0) As we reported on Tuesday, NebuAd has lost its CEO and, after facing Congressional scrutiny over privacy fears, the will to pursue ISP customers with its deep-packet inspection technology. [...]

  6. In Online Privacy Fight, Google Blinks – GigaOM Tuesday, September 9, 2008

    [...] inspection firms NebuAd and Phorm working with ISPs to mine your web surfing habits for profit, was tarnishing Google and other search engines as [...]

  7. ISPs Tell Congress They Don’t Need Privacy Laws – GigaOM Thursday, September 25, 2008

    [...] Thursday, September 25, 2008 at 3:38 PM PT Comments (0) Earlier today the second of two governmental hearings related to online privacy got underway. This particular hearing focused on deep packet inspection and how Internet service [...]

  8. Verizon Says Shame Will Keep Your Web Data Private – GigaOM Tuesday, October 14, 2008

    [...] because it is in the best interest of the company to listen to its customers. He brings up the current issues of online privacy, where ISPs have turned to firms such as Phorm or NebuAd to profit by selling advertisements served [...]

  9. Akamai Joins The Targeted Advertising Rush – GigaOM Tuesday, October 21, 2008

    [...] although my bet is users and politicians will find this far less frightening than having an ISP know where they surf. The Akamai product cedes the last mile back to consumers on the privacy front, but pushes [...]

  10. Free Press Asks FCC for Broadband Bill of Rights – GigaOM Tuesday, October 28, 2008

    [...] at GigaOM, we’ve detailed the traffic blocking, privacy-invading and competition-crushing efforts by ISPs to control the data moving through their pipes to their [...]

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