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Newsflash: Congress Discovers that Web Firms Track Data

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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

24 Responses to “Newsflash: Congress Discovers that Web Firms Track Data”

  1. to michaelportent:

    Deep packet inspection. This means that even if you clean your hard drive, wipe your blank space, use ad blocking software, block cookies, they can still inspect the packets that your IPs is sending and receiving to figure out where you have been. There isn’t a way to clean IP packets.

  2. “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.” –

    SO are you defending Google (and others) and thrashing the ISPs for the “same invasion of privacy” as you call it?

    And don’t confuse business models “advertising is their lifeblood” for invasion of privacy.

  3. I don’t know why tracking of ANY kind is ever allowed. What benefit is it to the user?

    As far as I am concerned, “nobody” should have the “right” to know my brower, platform, from which page to which page I move, my IP address, or any other information about my machine or my browsing WITHOUT EXPLICIT UPFRONT PERMISSION.

    If this is not an invasion of privacy WHAT IS?

    Next thing you know, they will be tracking where you drive your car. IS THAT PRIVATE INFORMATION? Yes, of course it is. THEN WHY DO WE ALLOW COMPANIES TO TRACK YOUR WHEREABOUTS ON THE INTERNET?

    Force feeding ones PC with ANY type of tracking/monitoring software should be against the law. PERIOD.

  4. If consent is required to gather data on visitors, then I think we’re all criminals. My analytics package for example, records the following:

    From Page
    To Page
    IP Address (for geo targeting)
    & Much more

    I doubt you need more than that information to target ads.

  5. Well, on the one hand I guess my conspiracy theory about Google spending vast sums to keep itself out of the ad insertion witch hunt may be incorrect. Or, possibly, they didn’t spend enough.

    But, on the other hand, my theory that Capitol Hill is populated by technology Neanderthals has yet another proof point.

  6. Newsflash, indeed.

    Really the only people with the need to fear subversive tracking cookies are people who don’t know how to clean their computer with regularity. Anybody with any web savvy is going to be using AdAware (or similar Adware screening programs) to be cleaning their machines of these cookies on a daily/weekly basis.

    Still, it bears looking into for congress. If it turns out ISPs/retailers are yanking more data from us than we expect when we surf, it’d be nice to put limitations on what they can derive.