Article 43

 

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Google’s Sneaky Snooping

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Some Web Firms Say They Track Behavior Without Explicit Consent

By Ellen Nakashima
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.

Alan Davidson, Google’s director of public policy and government affairs, stated in the letter that users could opt out of a single cookiefor both DoubleClick and the Google content network. He also said that Google was not yet focusing on “behavioral” advertising, which depends on Web site tracking.

But on its official blog last week, Google touted how its recent $3.1 billion merger with DoubleClick provides advertisers “insight into the number of people who have seen an ad campaign,” as well as “how many users visited their sites after seeing an ad.”

“Google is slowly embracing a full-blown BEHAVIORAL TARGETING over its vast network of services and sites,”
said Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. He said that Google, through its vast data collection and sophisticated data analysis tools, “knows more about consumers than practically anyone.”

Microsoft and Yahoo have disclosed that they engage in some form of behavioral targeting. Yahoo has said it will allow users to turn off targeted advertising on its Web sites; Microsoft has yet to respond to the committee.

More than a dozen of the 33 companies queried said they do not conduct targeted advertising based on consumers’ Internet activities. But, Chester said, a number of them engage in sophisticated interactive marketing. Advertisers on Comcast.net’s site, for instance, are able to target advertising based on “over 3 billion page views” from “15 million unique users.”

Comcast spokeswoman Sena Fitzmaurice stressed that the data are gathered exclusively for advertising on that site.

In their letters, Broadband providers Knology and Cable One acknowledged that they recently ran tests using deep-packet-inspection technology provided by NebuAd to see whether it could help them serve up more relevant ads, but their customers were not explicitly alerted to the test. Cable One is owned by The Washington Post Co.

Both companies said that no personally identifiable information was used and that they have ended the trials. Cable One has no plans to adopt the technology, spokeswoman Melany Stroupe said. “However, if we do,” she said, “we want people to be able to opt in.”

Ari Schwartz, vice president of the Center for Democracy and Technology, said lawmakers are beginning to understand the convergence across platforms. “People are starting to see: ‘Oh, we have these different industries that are collecting the same types of information to profile individuals and the devices they use on the network,” he said. “Internet. Cellphones. Cable. Any way you tap into the network, concerns are raised.”

Markey said yesterday that any legislation should generally require explicitly informing the consumer of the type of information that is being gathered and any intent to use it for a different purpose, and a right to say ‘no’ to the collection or use.

The push for overarching legislation is bipartisan. “A broad approach to protecting people’s online privacy seems both desirable and inevitable,” Barton said. “Advertisers and data collectors who record where customers go and what they do want profit at the expense of privacy.”

As of yesterday evening, the committee had posted letters from 25 companies on its Web site.

SOURCE

Posted by Elvis on 08/12/08 •
Section Privacy And Rights • Section Broadband Privacy
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Underemployement Gets Worse

Hidden toll on employment: Cut to part-time

The number of Americans who have seen their full-time jobs chopped to part time because of weak business has swelled to more than 3.7 million. On the surface, the job market is weak but hardly desperate. Layoffs remain less frequent, and the unemployment rate is a relatively modest 5.5 percent. But that figure masks the strains of those who are losing hours or working part time because they cannot find full-time work.

Hours cut is a big deal. People still have a job, but they are losing income. The growing ranks of involuntary part-timers reflect the fashion through which many American employers have come to manage their payrolls. In decades past, when business soured, companies tended to resort to mass layoffs, hiring people back when better times returned. But as high technology came to permeate American business, companies have grown reluctant to shed workers.

Companies today would rather not go through the process of dumping someone and hiring them back. Firms are going to short shifts instead. More part-time and fewer full-time workers allows companies to save on health care costs. The trend toward cutting hours in a downturn lessens the pain for workers in one regard: it moderates layoffs. Many companies now strive to keep payrolls large enough to allow them to easily adjust to swings in demand, adding working hours without having to hire when business grows.

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Posted by Elvis on 08/12/08 •
Section Dying America
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Got A Complaint For Embarq?

EMBARQ is incorporating a new way to help its customers who are not completely satisfied with the outcome they have experienced after reaching out to its general consumer help line. Customers can call the EMBARQ(TM) Consumer Affairs Hotline at 800-877-3345 (option 3) and talk to a representative Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. eastern time to discuss their unresolved issue. During non-business hours and weekends, the company pledges it will return calls within 24 hours and begin work on a resolution.

Dana Chase, vice president of network services for EMBARQ, is so committed to making customers happy that she’s also added a new responsibility to her title—to be the Customers’ BFF, or in the texting world, “Best Friend Forever.”

“We’re committed to providing the best service possible and exceeding our customers’ expectations every single time we have the opportunity to interact with them,” said Chase. “Our promise to address issues within 24 hours is another example of that dedication. If we treat our customers as our best friends, we build customers’ trust and loyalty.”

The EMBARQ(TM) Consumer Affairs Hotline has been in place for years and is listed in the front of phone books. The company said it hopes the enhancement will make more consumers aware that the hotline is available. Focusing on customer service is one of the ways EMBARQ has worked to differentiate itself from the competition, especially in an industry not particularly known for treating customers well.

“If you hang up the phone and are upset for any reason, we want another chance to make you happy,” said Chase.

EMBARQ customers who need to get in touch with the company’s Consumer Affairs Hotline can call 800-877-3345 (option 3) or ONLINE.

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Posted by Elvis on 08/12/08 •
Section General Reading
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