US Congress questions legality of Phorm and the Phormettes

'Talk to us first'


After telling the world it will soon pimp customer data to NebuAd - a behavioral ad targeting firm along the lines of Phorm and Front Porch - Charter Communications has received a letter from Congress questioning the legality of such pimping.

As we reported yesterday, Charter - America's eighth largest ISP - plans to test NebuAd within the next 30 days. In San Luis Obispo, California, Fort Worth, Texas, Oxford, Massachusetts, and Newtown, Connecticut, NebuAd's deep packet inspection hardware will track the search and browsing history of "a couple hundred" Charter customers, and this data will then be used to target online ads.

According to a Charter spokeswoman, the cable-based ISP will "determine further roll outs in the coming months". And now it has a bit more to think about. This morning, in response to the (scant) press coverage of the Charter-NebuAd tie-up, two Congressional bigwigs fired a letter to the ISP suggesting it put the skids on its test.

"We respectfully request that you do not move forward on Charter Communications' proposed venture with NebuAd until we have an opportunity to discuss with you issues raised by this proposed venture," wrote Ed Markey, the chairman of the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, and Joe Barton, a ranking member of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.

Charter is notifying customers affected by its NebuAd test, while pointing them to a page where they can opt-out of the service. But Markey and Barton question if such services should be opt-in only, arguing that Charter's agreement runs afoul of privacy provisions laid down by Section 631 of the US Communications Act.

"Any service to which a subscriber does not affirmatively subscribe and that can result in the collection of information about the web-related habits and interests of a subscriber, and achieves any of these results without the 'prior written consent of the subscriber,' raises substantial questions related to Section 631."

According to Jessica Schafer, a spokeswoman for Markey, Charter has not responded to the letter. Nor has it responded to our questions about the letter.

But you know what they'll say. The question is why the press has largely overlooked Phorm, NebuAd, and other behavioral ad targeters. "This is such an important story," says Jeff Chester of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Digital Democracy. "In the UK, there's been a huge firestorm over Phorm. But there's been close to nothing here.

"I don't think people realize what's going on - how sophisticated this tracking is."

Either that or Americans just don't care. The country's rather quiet response to NebuAd's recent activities may point to a cultural difference between the US and the UK. When it comes to protecting privacy, so many Americans just can't be bothered. ®

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