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Congressional Scrutiny Hurting NebuAd

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Sometimes if you combine consumer outrage and an election year strange things happen. That seems to be the case when it comes to NebuAd, which is using controversial technology to inject ads into webpages by tapping into people’s click streams.

The company today announced that it has laid off a “significant number” of employees, according to The Register. The story suggests that NebuAd is considering a different way to use its deep packet inspection technology for advertising, which wouldn’t rely on using an ISP’s customer data. The company originally was the target of consumer outrage after it signed deals with a few ISPs, including Embarq and Charter. Once its Charter trials attracted Congressional interest, and Charter backed off, NebuAd’s proverbial goose was put on the slow burn.

When questioned on how realistic it was to expect Congress to legislate anything regarding consumer privacy on the Web, an activist told me sometimes just shining a light on such practices works. In this case it got NebuAd CEO Bob Dykes to offer a more obvious opt-out notice, which likely isn’t good for the firm’s bottom line. I can’t imagine that consumers would continue to participate in a program where their ISP uses information about their web surfing habits to insert advertising. Of course people do pay good money for women’s fashion magazines, which are advertisements wrapped in a thin blanket of beauty and relationship advice. Maybe the lure of “relevant ads” delivered via NebuAd would keep people from opting out. Nah.

image courtesy of Lucky

13 Responses to “Congressional Scrutiny Hurting NebuAd”

  1. I’m in the UK, I don’t use gmail & I block “all cookies & scripting including Google”, except for a few Websites.

    But being with BT on the Kingston RAS, I’ve not been able to do any personal/private surfing for nigh on TWO Years, without VPN.

    I detected something wrong with BT in Summer 2006, but was not able to locate the problem properly until Phorm went Public.

    So I know the difference between Phorm/Webwise & Google & it isn’t good!

    To Cap what isn’t normally mentioned is that these DPI systems are capable of DIRECT DATA Injection into the WEB Browser or any Application which uses a Browser Agent String!

    I Strongly suspect this company of injecting Rogue Javascript at my PC on at least 3 occassions, fortunately I have other defenses in place!

  2. Robb,

    I do understand the distinction. My point is simply that to the technology-challenged life forms occupying Capitol Hill the differences are not stark at all. Both observe behaviors and insert relevant ads. The fact that Google has skated clear of this imbroglio only proves that their well-oiled lobbying machine trumps those of the many other technology companies.

    Another interesting proof point: Commissioner Martin opened his statement on the recent Comcast slap down by comparing what Comcast did to the post office opening and reading your mail. I use Gmail and know that Google opens and reads every email I send and receive. I’m actually ok with that because I get something valuable in return: free email with gobs of storage. Nevertheless, I’d be willing to bet that Martin’s post office comparison had the mandarins at Google sweating.

  3. Hi Kevin,

    Google is different in that they don’t know anything about you than your computer or browser tells them specifically. In other words, it’s your own computer that sends information to Google’s servers in Mountain View. You can block this communication using various settings and software easily available.

    NebuAd, on the other hand, is installed inside your ISP and tells NebuAd everything you do on the Internet, regardless of your computer’s settings or any blocking or security software you use to prevent it.

    Those stark differences aside, Google by its very size and popularity is becoming quickly capable of tracking users as they move about the net, even though it uses standard and accepted privacy practices. This has some privacy people alarmed, but it still doesn’t raise the specter of the “wiretapping”-like behavior that NebuAd does.

    Robb Topolski

  4. It amazes me that Google, a company built to observe consumer behavior and insert relevant ads, has avoided being dragged into this debate. Defenders of Google will no doubt claim that they’re doing something completely different but it’s only different at an implementation level. To consumers it still amounts to observing behavior and inserting ads.

    I strongly suspect that Googlites, seeing this as a potential PR nightmare, dispatched a few PhDs to Capitol Hill to help politicians understand that Google is doing something completely different than those evil ISPs.

  5. Stacey Higginbotham

    Herman, that looks closer to a recommendation service that’s fairly common for mobile browsers or mobile personalized portal pages. There are some similarities between the tech, but I will say the mobile versions do help with usability and accessing content on the more difficult and slower mobile format. Customers also don’t have to use those browsers or services if they don’t want to, whereas opting out of the ISP-sponsored programs is more challenging.

  6. Gus Swan

    Sounds very similar to the process Phorm are embarking on here. The UK government seems more relaxed about the legality, while the EU sounds more like congress. Whatever else, it’s kryptonite to publishers, as it takes away one of the core selling points: premium audience. once a particular brand audience is tracked you can sell/reach them anywhere.

  7. I think what might work is if NebuAd was able to subsidize part of a users internet access fees via their ISP in exchange for being able to target ads at users. Then there is value for the user, value for the ISP and value for NebuAd.