August 12, 2008
Several Internet and broadband companies have acknowledged using targeted-advertising technology without explicitly informing customers, according to letters released yesterday by the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
And Google, the leading online advertiser, stated that it has begun using Internet tracking technology that enables it to more precisely follow Web-surfing behavior across affiliated sites.
The revelations came in response to a bipartisan inquiry of how more than 30 Internet companies might have gathered data to target customers. Some privacy advocates and lawmakers said the disclosures help build a case for an overarching online-privacy law.
“Increasingly, there are no limits technologically as to what a company can do in terms of collecting information . . . and then selling it as a commodity to other providers,” said committee member Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), who created the Privacy Caucus 12 years ago. “Our responsibility is to make sure that we create a law that, regardless of the technology, includes a set of legal guarantees that consumers have with respect to their information.”
Markey said he and his colleagues plan to introduce legislation next year, a sort of online-privacy Bill of Rights, that would require that consumers must opt in to the tracking of their online behavior and the collection and sharing of their personal data.
But some committee leaders cautioned that such legislation could damage the economy by preventing small companies from reaching customers. Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.) said self-regulation that focuses on transparency and choice might be the best approach.
Google, in its letter to committee Chairman John Dingell (D-Mich.), Markey, Stearns and Rep. Joe L. Barton (R-Tex.), stressed that it did not engage in potentially the most invasive of technologies — deep-packet inspection, which companies such as NebuAd have tested with some broadband providers. But Google did note that it had begun to use across its network the “DoubleClick ad-serving cookie,” a computer code that allows the tracking of Web surfing.