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Hitwise and Compete: the user data ISPs do sell

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Testifying before Congress last month, three of America's four largest ISPs said they wouldn’t sell customer data to the likes of Phorm and NebuAd without getting consent. And the press applauded. But no one thought to ask one more question: Are they selling customer data to anyone else?

Addressing the Senate Commerce committee, AT&T, Time Warner, and Verizon said they do not engage in so-called behavioral ad targeting - and they would never do such a thing unless their customers gave the A-OK.

"Any technology that is used to track and collect customer online behavior for the purposes of targeting advertising - regardless of which company is doing the collecting - should only be used with the customer's knowledge and consent," Verizon executive vice president Thomas Tauke told the committee.

In other words, these ISP behemoths insisted they don't sell data to Phorm, NebuAd, Front Porch, or any other outfit that operates along similar lines - echoing words they tossed at House Telecommunications and the Internet Subcommittee this summer.

But amidst the ongoing controversy over ISP-level behavioral advertising - both in the US and in the UK - the world has forgotten that ISPs were already selling customer data to outside operations, including "web analytics" outfits like Hitwise and Compete. Hitwise traffic monitoring software sits inside 30 ISPs across the globe, tracking the online behavior of 25 million people, while Compete collects web user data from twenty ISPs or ASPs in the US.

According to year-old talk from former Compete CTO David Cancel, the company pays ISPs roughly 40 cents a month for each user's clickstream.

With Phorm and NebuAd, the problem wasn't that they were serving ads. The problem was that ISPs were passing them customer search and browsing data without necessarily getting consent. Hitwise and Compete are certainly buying data. The questions is whether they're getting consent - and whether the data can be traced back to individual users.

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