Cable Company Trades Customers' Privacy for Profit
Charter Communications, one of the nation's largest cable Internet providers, plans to begin monitoring the online activities of its high- speed Internet customers and then sell the data for targeted advertising.
Charter is in the position to observe and analyze nearly all of its customers' online activities. The new plan, if widely adopted, has the potential to turn the Internet provider into what one commentator called "the ultimate third-party tracking network."
Charter's Vice President touted the new service as a "customer enhancement." According to the company's letter to customers, "browsing the web can become more like flipping through your favorite magazine, where you see ads that are appealing to you and enhance your enjoyment and the utility of the experience."
However, Charter has also admitted other goals: "We want to leverage technology in a way that makes sense for our economic model."
Charter's tracking program is designed to ignore confidential medical information and adult content, but many questions remain unanswered. Will online political activity and communications with friends and family be monetized without your consent? How will this service affect the advertising delivered to multi-user households? How and to what extent will information about your browsing habits be retained?
Just last week, the Ninth Circuit affirmed a lower court decision granting a discovery order that directed Yahoo! to provide information about five anonymous email accounts and the users' online activities so a litigant could gather evidence in a divorce proceeding. Once Charter starts collecting browsing profiles, who knows where this information may end up.
Customers can currently choose to opt out of the monitoring, but this is a tenuous process. Doing so involves installation of a small file called a "cookie" which has to be put in place for every browser used on the network. This cookie can be easily (and accidently) deleted by clearing a browser's history and cache. The general effectiveness of this method, even when properly implemented, has already been questioned.
Congressman Edward Markey (D-Massachusetts) and Congressman Joe Barton (R-Texas), have asked Charter to freeze the program, citing privacy and legal concerns under the Communications Act and the Cable Television and Consumer Protection Act. "[C]able systems, particularly those with a 'two-way' capability, have an enormous capacity to collect and store personally identifiable information about each cable subscriber," the letter said. Contact Congressmen Markey and Barton and urge them to keep pressure on Charter to stop this invasive program.
Charter's desire to eavesdrop on your web activity to build profiles for advertisers could mark a fundamental shift away from the traditionally passive nature of Internet providers and endanger your online privacy. Everyone needs to keep an eye on this issue. If you are a Charter user, let the company know that you don't want them monitoring your online activity.