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article imageOp-Ed: I’d Like my Web Without Any Big Brother, With a Side of Privacy Protection

By David Silverberg     Aug 16, 2008 in Internet
Now that AT&T admitted it may consider watching what its customer surf online, are the days of a surveillance-friendly Web coming soon? And why does an ad firm called NebuAd strike fear in the hearts of privacy advocates?
Digital Journal — The days of surfing unwatched could soon come to an end, if AT&T has its way. The company admitted it is “carefully considering” monitoring Web-surfing sessions of its customers in order to better serve custom advertisers to users. In response to an inquiry from the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, AT&T is preparing its customers for what may become the inevitable Big Brother solution: watch what we surf, tell us it’s for the consumerist good, and watch the privacy walls stumble.
AT&T wants to allay any surveillance fears, writing: “If AT&T deploys these technologies and processes, and we have yet to do so, it will do so the right way, only after full and careful consideration of the relevant issues.”
The letter comes in response to a request from Rep. Edward Markey, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce's Internet subcommittee, who asked 33 companies to share information on their data collection processes. Companies like Google and AOL denied using powerful techniques like deep packet inspection, which intensely inspects data as it travels across the Internet. DPI software, as explained by Ars Technica, can “peer inside all traffic from a specific IP address, pick out the HTTP traffic, then drill even further down to capture only traffic headed to and from Gmail, and can even reassemble emails as they are typed out by the user.”
Legislative interest in Web-surfing monitoring soared amid recent hearing over a company called NebuAd, which makes devices to attach to networks of ISPs and logs surfers’ movements. NebuAd’s arrival in the market prompted Congress to investigate how it would watch surfers’ sessions and put behavioural targeting under the radar once again.
Markey would like to see an opt-in standard for using consumer data. He has said consumer data should not be monitored if they don’t want their activity tracked. NebuAd countered by saying consumers should simply get an obvious notice of what the ad firm is monitoring.
According to CNET, NebuAd is doing nothing nefarious. “NebuAd has repeatedly refused to disclose what advertising networks it uses or what broadband providers it counts as customers. It has said that it does not collect or use personally identifiable information and does not store raw data linked to ‘identifiable individuals.’”
But what NebuAd’s technology and AT&T’s warning represent is nothing short of a tidal change in how Web surfing will evolve in the next decade. Sure, we may have unfettered access to our favourite websites (at least in the West) but would we know if our ISPs are monitoring our online sojourns? Look at how Comcast was accused of slowing down traffic for users uploading large video files. This isn’t how the Internet was supposed to be.
Yahoo and other companies claim behavioural targeting through surveiling surfing habits leads to a better online experience. Trevor Hughes, executive director of the Network Advertising Initiative, an industry group, told Business Week: “We're not talking about more online advertising. We're talking about relevant advertising that consumers appreciate.”
The question is, do we want targeted advertising at the expense of our privacy? It’s a slippery slope, considering how eager Web companies are to deliver impressive results to their clients. Consumers won’t be happy to learn how their private info is being used, all in the name of advertising’s goal.
In the coming years, it will be a challenge for the public, privacy advocates and ISPs to find common ground on this contentious issue of behavioural targeting. The future of your online surfing habits may just rely on the outcome of this controversy.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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