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Congress quizzes world+dog over data pimping

Phorm letter

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

US Congressman Ed Markey and his anti-data-pimping brigade are back on the warpath.

On Friday, the chairman of the House Telecommunications and the Internet Subcommittee joined three other high-ranking US lawmakers in lobbing an open letter at thirty American ISPs, asking each if they've ever used customer browsing activity as a means of targeting online ads.

"Has your company at any time tailored, or facilitated the tailoring of, Internet advertising based on customers' internet search, surfing, or other use?" asked the letter, signed by John Dingell (chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce), Joe Barton (ranking member of the Committee on Energy and Commerce), and Cliff Stearns (ranking member of the Telecommunications and the Internet Subcommittee).

Yes, they wanna know if anyone else is pimping customer data to Phorm, NebuAd, Front Porch, AdZilla, or some other third-party behavioral ad targeter. But they also wanna know how ad targeting is handled by the giants of the web. In addition to those thirty ISPs - including AOL, AT&T, Comcast, Time Warner Cable, and Verizon - Markey and crew fired copies of their letter at Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo!.

Ed Markey and Joe Barton launched their anti-data-pimping fight back in May, after Charter Communications - America's eighth largest ISP - told the world it was testing technology from NebuAd. In an effort to target online ads, NebuAd's deep packet inspection hardware tracks the search and browsing activity of web surfers from inside an ISP's network. And since it fails to require an opt-in, it may run afoul of the US Communications Act of 1934, the Cable Act of 1984, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, and other wiretapping-related US statutes.

Markey and Barton asked Charter to bag its tests while they looked into the matter. And they soon asked the rest of the country's ISPs to halt any other data pimping experiments. Charter complied, as did several others, and in mid July, Markey oversaw a Congressional hearing in which he accused NebuAd CEO Bob Dykes of "beating" the American consumer.

But it's unclear exactly how many American ISPs have pimped data to the likes of NebuAd. Some admit the practice - including WideOpenWest, CenturyTel, Knology, Bresnan Communications, and Embarq - but most of the big-name ISPs have kept quiet.

AT&T has denied using Phorm. But that's about it.

With Friday's letter, the Markey brigade asks AT&T et al many of the same data pimping questions it asked Embarq last month. The Kansas-based ISP eventually came clean. ®

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