Broadband Providers Vow to Protect User Privacy

After a summer of debate over NebuAd's deep package inspection advertising model leads to Congressional hearings and harsh criticism by consumer groups, the nation's largest broadband providers hope industry guidelines calling for consumer opt-in regimes will stave off new Internet privacy laws. AT&T, Verizon and Time Warner deny using deep packet inspection.

The summer of NebuAd ended Sept. 25 with the nation's largest broadband providers scrambling to tell Congress there is no need for new laws to protect user privacy. Instead, they insisted to lawmakers, industry guidelines calling for opt-in regimes were the answer to intrusive behavioral advertising.

Verizon, AT&T and Time Warner also said they do not employ behavioral advertising and have no current interest in tracking users' Web travels in order to serve up targeted advertising. If they decided to use behavioral advertising models, the broadband providers said, they would allow users to opt in to the program.

"AT&T does not today engage in online behavioral advertising, but we understand the uniquely sensitive nature of this practice," Dorothy Attwood, AT&T's chief privacy officer, told the Senate Commerce Committee.

Tom Tauke, Verizon's executive vice president of public affairs, policy and communications, added, "Any technology that is used to track and collect consumer online behavior for the purposes of targeted advertising --regardless of which company is doing the collecting -- should only be used with the customer's knowledge and consent."

NebuAd, a Silicon Valley startup promoting DPI, or deep packet inspection, raised the ire of both Congress and consumer groups when Charter Communications announced it planned to deploy NebuAd's DPI technology. Without a user's consent, NebuAd collects information about the user's browsing history and serves up ads based on those travels and shares the revenue with the Internet service provider.

NebuAd's problems began in May when Rep. Ed Markey, the chairman of the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, and Rep. Joe Barton, the panel's ranking Republican, wrote a letter (PDF) to Charter urging the broadband provider to drop its plans to use NebuAd's DPI package. That was followed by a critical technical report (PDF) on NebuAd's DPI process by Free Press and Public Knowledge.

Charter eventually decided to drop its NebuAd plans.

"Should Time Warner Cable decide to engage in such activities, our customers' privacy will be a fundamental consideration," said Peter Stern, chief strategy officer for Time Warner Cable.

Tauke told lawmakers Verizon was working with other broadband providers to draft industry best practices but said he was not at liberty to discuss the talks since the participating parties had all signed non-disclosure agreements. He said the group hoped to have guidelines by the end of the year.

Referring to the summer flap over NebuAd, Tauke said, "There's a lot to be said for shining the light of day on a lot of practices. People stopped their behavior; that's what an industry group can do."