ISP Responds to Lawmaker Concerns About Ad Tracking

Embarq, an Internet service provider based in Kansas, has suspended its test of a targeted advertising service that tracks subscribers' Web habits as a way to deliver relevant ads.

Embarq, in a letter to U.S. lawmakers made public Tuesday, said it has no plans to deploy a controversial behavioral ad service from NebuAd. Three members of the U.S. House of Representatives sent a letter to Embarq CEO Tom Gerke last week, questioning the ISP's use of the NebuAd service, which has prompted an outcry from privacy advocates.

"Embarq has no plans for more tests or for general deployment of this technology, until such time as the privacy questions that have been raised recently have been addressed," said the Embarq letter, signed by David Zesiger, the company's senior vice president for regulatory policy and external affairs.

NebuAd's targeted ad system tracks user behavior in order to deliver more relevant ads and allows ISPs to profit from online advertising, but some privacy groups have accused the company of illegally wiretapping ISP subscribers' connections and of using common Internet attacks to deliver its service.

NebuAd's service first raised concerns earlier this year, when another ISP, Charter Communications, announced it was testing the service. Charter later announced it had suspended the test due to privacy concerns.

The lawmakers' letter came from Representatives John Dingell, a Michigan Democrat and chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee; Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat and chairman of the committee's Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet; and Joe Barton of Texas, the ranking Republican on the full committee. The lawmakers raised concerns that the targeted ad service violated privacy and that Embarq had not notified its customers of the NebuAd test.

But Zesiger's letter says that Embarq, which provides voice and Internet service to customers in 18 states, did notify its subscribers of the test. Two weeks before the test began, Embarq posted a notice on its Web site saying it would use personal information to deliver targeted advertising. The notice included a link to a page where subscribers could opt out of this "preference" advertising.

"By opting out, you will continue to receive advertisements as normal, but these advertisements will be less relevant and less useful to you," the notice said.

The Embarq test was brief and did not collect information that could be linked to individual subscribers, Zesiger added. "Embarq put in place a number of clear protections around its test," he wrote.

The test complied with U.S. Federal Trade Commission guidelines on the collection of personal data, Zesiger added. "It appears that industry standards in this area are evolving rapidly toward a more robust form of notice and choice," he said. "Embarq ... not only welcomes, but fully intends to apply any such evolved standards."

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