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ISPs laud their data pimping services but refuse to use them

The view from the Front Porch

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Another American ISP has frozen its plans to embrace behavioral ad targeting.

Massillon Cable TV, an ISP serving roughly 30,000 people in the great state of Ohio, says it was preparing to roll out behavioral ad technology from Silicon Valley start-up Front Porch, but as Congress continues to scrutinize the privacy implications of such systems, Front Porch has asked the company to hold off.

"Front Porch wanted to make sure that there weren't any privacy issues," Massillon CEO Bob Gessner told us. "Everyone is treading lightly to make sure no one's privacy is damaged." Much like Phorm and NebuAd, Front Porch tracks the search and browsing activity of ISP users, tossing this data to various online advertising networks for ad targeting.

In May, when Charter Communications, the country's eighth largest cable ISP, began testing NebuAd's system, two Congressional honchos questioned whether its opt-out setup violates US law. Front Porch says that unlike Phorm and NebuAd, its system is opt-in only (at least when deployed on residential ISPs) and does not use cookies. But if you do opt-in, the company says, it tracks your IP address as well as your search and browsing activity.

Charter eventually halted plans to officially deploy NebuAd, and when it did, Congressman Ed Markey, chair of the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, urged other ISPs to freeze the deployment of similar services. This, at least in part, sparked Massillon's pull back.

But it's worth noting that Massillon Cable TV has posted a notice to its website alerting customers that Front Porch's ad system is already in use. "We utilize technology that allows advertising networks to deliver more relevant ads based on your recent searches and website visits," the notice reads. "This anonymous interest-based surveying will not cause you to see more ads. It will make the ads that you see on the websites you visit more relevant to your interests."

When we first called, Gessner said he was unaware of the notice. And he later called back, saying that the Front Porch ad system was never turned on. "We are not doing it yet," he said. "We were close to [launching the system] some months ago, before the Charter thing came up. That language was put there in anticipation of launching Front Porch advertising."

Front Porch CEO Zach Britton also tells us that the system never went live. But Massillon has long used a separate Front Porch messaging service that sends users DMCA take down notices when they're caught posting copyrighted material to the net.

Meanwhile, the same notice has turned up on the website of Missouri-based ISP NewWave. When we talked to NewWave VP of marketing Kyle Alcorn, he - like Massillon's Gessner - was unaware of the notice and said his ISP has yet to actually deploy Front Porch's service.

Both notices also offer users an opt-out, and they read like posts that alert users to an opt-out-only service. But Britton is adamant the system is always opt-in. Britton did tell us - as he's told us in the past - that other ISPs are using (or have used) the service. But he wouldn't say who.

Though Front Porch tracks your IP address as well as your search and browsing activity, Britton points out that it does not collect the contents of the page you visit. "In order to adhere to wiretapping laws, we only listen to one-side of the conversation," he says. In other words, the system knows what addresses you visit, but it doesn't see the actual data you retrieve. ®

Bootnote

With a post to Broadband Reports, a customer using the Midwestern ISP known only as WOW! says the company has told him that it will follow Charter in halting its use of NebuAd. Despite pressure from Congress, WOW! had previously said that it would continue using the technology.

Update

Originally, this story said that Front Porch tracks user behavior via "deep packet inspection." But Front Porch has called to say that although it does look at individual packet headers, it technically does not practice deep packet inspection.

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