Disclosure: I have worked with and agree with the advocacy groups that are protesting such tracking plans as Charter’s.
Various news sources are reporting that Charter has dropped these plans, in part because of the public outcry. However, two other U.S. companies are mulling the same kind of customer tracking. In the last month, there has been considerable debate and controversy over Charter Communications and NebuAd’s plans to use deep packet inspection to build profiles on individual users in order to better target advertising toward those individuals. (Whenever you send an e-mail or visit a Web site, your data is broken up to packets of information and directed toward the destination requested. Deep packet inspection allows the Internet Service Provider to read the contents of an e-mail or figure out what Web site a customer is visiting.) The Washington Post reports:
The company had been planning to harvest the stream of data from each Internet customer for clues to their interests and then make money from advertisers who would use the information to target online pitches.
The data-collection effort would have protected personal information, Charter officials said in describing the plan, but critics likened the practice to wiretapping.
According to the Associated Press, two other U.S. companies are considering similar plans to track customers’ Web habits. “Phone companies Embarq Corp. and CenturyTel Inc. have both completed trials of the same tracking system, from online advertising company NebuAd Inc., and are now considering whether to proceed.” And a recent report (pdf) by Free Press and Public Knowledge reveals that at least three other U.S. companies have used NebuAd’s customer tracking technology: WOW!, Broadstripe, and Metro Provider. The report found that:
NebuAd, after being installed on the WOW! network, injects extra hidden code into a user’s browser that was not sent by the Web site being visited. That code directs the user’s Web browser to another site not requested or even seen by the consumer, where hidden code is downloaded and executed to add more tracking cookies. The consumer then sees ads based on NebuAd’s profile of a user’s browsing habits — built through the secretly collected information.