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Charter suspends NebuAd data-pimping experiment

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Charter Communications has suspended plans to deploy NebuAd's web usage tracking technology following howls of protest from critics who say that practice seriously compromised the privacy of subscribers.

Charter, which is the biggest US-based internet service provider to test the NebuAd system, abruptly changed course on Tuesday, following scrutiny from Congressmen and at least one state law enforcer. Last month, Charter had said it would begin tracking the web usage of subscribers in four test markets so it could deliver targeted ads to them.

Both Charter and NebuAd insist the subscribers are never personally identified. But government overseers aren't so sure. Among them is Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, who released a letter Tuesday calling on Charter to drop the pilot.

"The arrangement raises strikingly significant questions, such as what other uses will be made of this highly sensitive information and what measures Charter Communications is taking to safeguard such information," the letter read. Privacy advocates on Capitol Hill also weighed in last month. Democratic Representative Edward Markey of Massachusetts and Representative Joe Barton, a Republican from Texas, wrote Charter President Neil Smit and asked him to put the trial on hold.

No fewer than 15 privacy watchdogs have also weighed in on Charter's plan. Some of them have likened NebuAd to so-called man-in-the-middle intruders who use cross-site scripting attacks to hijack browser sessions.

The month of unfavorable attention was more than Charter's public relations ministers could handle.

"Our customers are always our first priority," they said in announcing the suspension. "We will continue to take a thoughtful, deliberate approach with the goal to ultimately structure an advertising service that enhances the internet experience for our customers and addresses questions and concerns they've raised."

Both Charter and NebuAd have portrayed the suspension as temporary, but so far neither side is saying when they think Charter might resume the experiment. NebuAd has said it is working with other ISPs in the US and that by the end of the year it will be monitoring the web surfing of 10 percent on internet users in this country. ®

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