Charter, Google face privacy scrutiny over third-party BT

When ISP Charter Communications sent letters to subscribers about its partnership with ad firm NebuAd and plans to track Web surfing habits to improve ad target­ing last week, federal legislators quickly reacted, citing privacy concerns.

Edward J. Markey (D-MA), chairman of the House subcommittee of telecom­munications and the Internet, and Joe Barton (R-TX), ranking member of the House committee on energy and com­merce, sent a letter to Charter CEO Neil Smit requesting that the company stop its plans until Smit discussed the decision with the representatives.

Charter’s customer letter included an opt out via URL and said the service would not link behavior to a subscriber’s identity. However, Markey and Barton’s letter said letting users opt out is not enough, say­ing the service required “prior written or electronic consent of the subscriber.”

Google also received a letter from Bar­ton on May 21 regarding its integration of technology from recent acquisition DoubleClick, requesting transparency and consumer data protection. The letter mentioned the site’s ad tracking technol­ogy’s ability to retain the IP address and user ID, or browser ID.

Google announced last Monday on its blog that it would be opening its content network to certified third-party ad servers, rich media agencies and research firms in North America. “We finally got to a posi­tion where we feel like we have sufficient protections in place to provide users a really powerful experience,” explained Rajas Moonka, senior business prod­uct manager at Google, who spoke to DMNews before the letter was sent and was not reachable for additional com­ments regarding the letter.

The search giant is one of many ad-supported companies to use third-party tracking to target ads to its user base. In fact, search engine got attention in December 2007 when it launched Ask Eraser, a tool that explicitly lets users con­trol their privacy while searching.

“It’s not always comparing apples to apples with different business models,” Mike Zaneis, VP of public policy for the Internet Advertising Bureau, said. “Con­text matters in the world of privacy.”

However he added, “It doesn’t matter if you’re an ISP, a third party ad network, a search engine or portal, you need to be cognizant of consumer privacy.”

Indeed as the expectation of ad rel­evance online increases, most online advertisers rely on some kind of behav­ioral targeting technology, often through a third-party vendor.

Gal Trifon, CEO of Eyeblaster, one of Google’s certified rich media agencies said, “If you don’t accept third party agencies, you’re forcing yourself out of campaigns that run along multiple properties.”

Zane is concluded that consumer still con­trol the issue: “They can vote with their clicks, go to other sites and leave platforms where they don’t feel comfortable.”

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