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Congress spotlights another American data pimper

Barks at Embarq

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Congressman Ed Markey - chair of the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet - has called out another American ISP for pimping user data to NebuAd, the Phorm-like behavioral ad targeter.

Yesterday, Markey and fellow Congressional big-wigs John D. Dingell (chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce) and Joe Barton (ranking member of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce) lobbed an open letter at the Kansas-based Embarq Corporation, questioning the NebuAd tests it ran this spring.

Using deep packet inspection, NebuAd tracks the search and browsing activity of ISP users in an effort to target online advertisements. The system is opt-out-based, and though Embarq updated its privacy policy to reflect the tracking of user data during the trials, it's unclear whether customers were provided with more direct notification.

"Surreptitiously tracking individual users' Internet activity cuts to the heart of consumer privacy," reads a canned statement from Congressman Markey. "The information collected through NebuAd's technology can be highly personal and sensitive information. Embarq's apparent use of this technology without directly notifying affected customers that their activity was being tracked, collected, and analyzed raises serious privacy red flags."

When we asked Embarq about the missive, this was all it said: "We have received the letter from Reps. Markey, Barton and Dingell and are reviewing it for an appropriate response." Earlier this month, the company told us it does not have a contract with NebuAd and is not pimping data to any other behavioral ad targeter.

With their open letter, the Congressmen toss nine pointed questions at the Sprint-spin-off, hoping to understand how those NebuAd trials were conducted. Embarq has not said where the trials took place or how many users were affected.

Markey and crew can't help but wonder whether those trials ran afoul of the Communications Act of 1934, the Cable Act of 1984, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, and other wiretapping-related US statutes. In May, Markey and Barton sent a similar letter to the midwestern ISP Charter Communications, and early tomorrow morning, Markey's Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet will convene for a hearing entitled "What Your Broadband Provider Knows About Your Web Use: Deep Packet Inspection and Communications Laws and Policies."

As the subcommittee investigates, Markey has urged all American ISPs to at least put their data pimping plans on hold. And many have complied, including Charter, CenturyTel, Bresnan Communications, Massillon Cable TV, and WOW!. ®

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