Newsflash: Congress Discovers that Web Firms Track Data

For any of us who recognize that personal privacy on the web is an illusion, the response to a Congressional inquiry asking how various ISPs and online portals target advertising and collect data will come as no surprise. Aside from the use of deep-packet inspection technology used by ISPs to insert advertising based on surfing habits, Congress discovered cookies and data retention policies. In a shocked tone, the Washington Post reported that Google is using DoubleClick’s tracking cookies to monitor where people go on the web in order to serve ads.

Is this really all that surprising? Wasn’t that one of the reasons Google paid $3.1 billion for DoubleClick? AOL also confessed to using tracking cookies and said relatively few (tens of thousands out of more than 100 million) users opted out of its targeted advertising program. Yahoo said it also uses behavioral ads but noted in its letter that it plans to announce the ability for consumers to opt out of such “customized ads.” It will still track users, though.

Looking beyond the major portals (excluding Microsoft, which hasn’t yet responded), the letters from the companies surveyed by the House Committee on Energy and Commerce turned up a few surprises such as Cable One, CenturyTel and Knowlogy using NebuAd’s deep-packet inspection technology in trials. I also noted that business providers such as Cbeyond, TW Telecom, and even large bandwidth providers Covad and XO Communications don’t use targeted advertising to their customers. Cablevision, Windstream, Comcast and Cox were the rare ISPs who aren’t using any real advertising efforts on their subscribers. Many providers did confess to typo squatting, however.

I’m not impressed by ISPs using invasive measures to track surfing habits to sell advertising, unless users are given some sort of price break and have a choice on whether they can opt-in. To me such tactics are undisclosed and give the consumer few outs if they don’t want to be tracked.

However, for free services, such as Google’s search engine or other web content providers, advertising is their lifeblood, and consumers (and Congress) should expect as much information tracking to take place as the portals can both devise and get away with. In the absence of regulatory protection and any other way of making money, it’s no surprise that advertising has become more invasive. Nothing in life is truly free.

For more on the topic check out these posts:

image courtesy of Congressman Ed Markey

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