ISP Still Pines For Behavioral Targeting

Cable company Charter, which previously attempted to partner with behavioral advertising company NebuAd, still seems to want to enter the online ad business.

"Addressable advertising is part of the economic engine for the Internet, for Internet startups, and for broadband deployment and adoption," the cable company said recently in comments filed with the Federal Communications Commission. "Participants in the broadband economy, federal agencies and public interest groups would best serve consumers by promoting a better understanding of these technologies and practices, rather than a suspicion of them."

Charter made its filing in response to the FCC's request for comments about online privacy and broadband, including how to meet consumers' expectations regarding privacy. While the Internet service provider doesn't directly refer to NebuAd, Charter obviously hopes that nothing in the new broadband plan will prevent ISPs from forging deals to monitor consumers' Web surfing in order to serve them targeted ads.

"Consumers browsing the Internet now expect cookies. That expectation comes from experience, education and the appreciation for the benefits that cookies provide," the company states. "The same evolution of consumer expectations is developing with advertising."

Charter also says that allowing ISPs to serve targeted ads could lower broadband subscription costs: "One means of promoting the affordability of broadband services is to foster an environment in which service providers have flexibility to seek more revenue from sources other than subscribers, such as advertisers."

The company adds that no one "has presented compelling record evidence that significant numbers of consumers are deterred from using broadband because of concern over how their information might be used for advertising."

In 2008, Charter notified broadband subscribers that it intended to work with NebuAd to serve users' ads based on their Web-surfing activity. But the company backed away from the controversial plan after Congress got involved.

NebuAd had always maintained that it would protect Web users' privacy by anonymizing the information it collected.

Still, ISP-based ad targeting is particularly controversial, given that broadband providers have access to users' entire clickstream data -- including activity at search engines and at noncommercial sites. Also, some privacy advocates warn that individuals can be identified from supposedly anonymized information.

Charter isn't the only one to weigh in recently on privacy and broadband. So have a host of trade groups, including the Interactive Advertising Bureau, as well as private companies and consumer advocates.

Despite the activity, it's not clear whether the FCC's broadband plan will even address online ad targeting. But given the controversy surrounding behavioral targeting -- especially when based on information gleaned from ISPs -- it would be very surprising to see the FCC decide to embrace Charter's position.

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