Congress Looks Into Ad Tracking

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Members of the U.S. Congress have begun questioning how some of the most widely-trafficked Internet companies and sites keep track of their users’ online behavior in an effort to target advertising based on search terms, site usage, and other parameters. The requests have been sent to more than 30 Internet companies, including major names like Google, Microsoft, Verizon, Comcast, Time Warner, and AT&T.

The rising concern over online behavioral tracking comes with the increasing use of a set of techniques called Deep Packet Inspection (DPI), which basically amounts to keeping track of what sites a particular Internet user visits, how long they spend there, what links they follow, what significant terms appear on those pages, along with things like queries sent to search engines, and even data entered into forms. Although some of the controversy has centered around appliances from NebuAd, similar techniques are used by Google and other Internet advertising companies in an effort to deliver more relevant ads to Internet users—the idea is that if the ads on a page are a closer match to things the user has been interested in, the more likely the ads will be effective.

Of course, behavioral advertising brings with it a raft of privacy concerns: although almost all practitioners say the data they collect cannot be associated with individual Internet users—and NebuAd, at least, enables users to opt out of its system—the congressional committees on Energy and Commerce have asked a broad swath of Internet companies to describe their practices in detail and explain how they protect potentially sensitive information—like health and financial information—from misuse and abuse.

In a statement, Massachusetts Congressman Ed Markey (Dem) wrote: [The] sweeping ability to collect, analyze, and profile how individuals use their broadband connection raises clear privacy issues, and I believe such activity should occur only with the express prior consent of individual citizens. In addition, individual websites and search engines and their affiliates that monitor users also owe consumers constructive notice of such activities and the right to limit or thwart any personal data collection.”

The online advertising industry is likely to aver that no federal intervention is necessary and that the industry will be able to regulate itself through broadly agreed-upon best practices. However, the European Union has long been examining the role of online user tracking, and the U.S. Federal Trade Commission has also examined the practice, although it seems content to let the industry police itself.