Washington—CableOne last fall conducted a six-month trial of a network-based technology that tracks consumers’ Internet destinations in an effort to collect data considered more commercially desirable to advertisers.
The Phoenix, Ariz.-based cable company revealed the trial in an Aug. 8 letter to the bipartisan leadership of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, lawmakers who have expressed concern that Internet access providers are experimenting with technologies that invade consumers’ privacy.
The trial, CableOne said, started November 20, 2007 and ended after 180 days on its cable systems in Anniston, Ala., serving about 14,000 cable modem subscribers. An unnamed outside vendor provided the monitoring technology.
CableOne insisted that it had complied with privacy laws and gave consumers appropriate notice through its acceptable use policy (AUP) at the time they signed up for service, and through its privacy notice sent annually to subscribers.
“CableOne customers opted in to our monitoring of their Internet usage and content consistent with this third-party test when they agreed to our AUP,” the company said.
CableOne acknowledged that it did not allow customers to opt-out of the trial “because doing so would stifle our ability to test new technologies that have the potential to offer significant benefits to our customers.”
In separate letters to the same lawmakers,, Comcast, Time Warner and Cablevision said they have not engaged in similar customer monitoring as CableOne.
Google, in its own letter, told the lawmakers that it endorsed passage of “a comprehensive federal privacy law that would accomplish several goals, such as building consumer trust and protections ...”
Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce on Telecommunications and Internet, has called for a new law that would establish an Internet bill of rights designed to protect online consumer privacy from invasion by Internet access providers and Web-based content providers.
CableOne, which has about 700,000 subscribers and is owned by the Washington Post Co., said it conducted the trial to determine whether customers would benefit from “more relevant advertising,” which could perhaps help “subsidize users’ Internet access or other services and applications ...”
CableOne said it was “approached by a third-party vendor about a new technology that replaces existing online advertisements with advertisements of greater relevance to users based on anonymized data collected about certain commercial categories of interest.”
Although the MSO did not identify the third-party by name or its technology, its description appeared to match deep packet inspection (DPI) technology developed by a start-up vendor named NebuAd.
Charter Communications, a major cable operator, considered conducting a NebuAd trial, but Markey and Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), citing consumer privacy concerns, put pressure on the company until it agreed not to go forward.
Knology, a Georgia-based provider of voice, video and high-speed data services, said it began a NebuAd trial in January, starting in Columbus, Ga., followed by Augusta, Ga., Panama City, Fl., Knoxville, Tenn. and Huntsville, Ala. Consumers, who received prior notification, could opt-out.
The Knology trial ended on July 14, three days before Markey’s panel held a hearing on DPI technology and privacy, Knology president Rodger Johnson said in an Aug. 8 letter.
CenturyTel, the seventh-largest phone company in the U.S., told lawmakers that it used NebuAd for a trial on his broadband network in Kalispell, Wyo., that involved about 20,000 high-speed data customers. The “one-time, limited test” began in November 2007 and stopped in June, company chairman and CEO Glen Post said in an Aug. 7 letter.