U.S. Reps Frown on Tracking Online Activity

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Members of the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet grilled the owner of a behavioral advertising company on Thursday about deep-packet inspection and the inability for consumers to opt out of Internet monitoring.

In the subcommittee members' line of fire was Bob Dykes, chief executive of NebuAd, an online advertising company that collects information on Internet users' surfing habits to hit them up with targeted ads.

Several U.S. Representatives said they believe ISPs and website owners should be banned from tracking surfers' online activities, just at the U.S. Post Office is banned from going through snail mail.

Their major concerns centered on deep-packet inspection, which is often used to filter out harmful viruses, but has recently made headlines after Comcast was accused of using the technology to block or slow down file-sharing applications.

"As opposed to individual Web sites that know certain information about visitors to its websites and affiliates, deep packet inspection technologies can indicate every Web site a user visits and much more about a person's web use," said subcommittee chairman Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat.

Markey argued that NebuAd should not be exempt from examining such information simply because it is a private company: FedEx and UPS are banned from going through mail, the same as postmasters are.

At this point, ISPs include notices of impending deep-packet inspection as bill inserts or in e-mails to customers, Dykes told committee members.

His company is working with the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) to instead have those notices pop when a user signs on to their account. That notice would tell the customer that their activity would be tracked and give them the option to opt out. If they took no action, however, their activity would be tracked by default.

"The idea that anyone can examine what you do, where you go ... I think goes against everything that the country's been founded on and that most Americans believe," said Rep. Mike Doyle, a Pennsylvania Democrat. "And I don't care if an ISP is doing it or Google's doing it, it shouldn't be happening."

NebuAd and CDT are now working together to reach a "common ground" on consumer notification, Dykes said. The two groups met Wednesday and came to a "high-level understanding" about how to allow Web users to opt-out of NebuAd's targeted advertising.