WASHINGTON — A key House lawmaker said Thursday that Internet service providers should be prohibited from tracking customers' Web activities to deliver targeted ads without those users' clear approval.
The controversial practice, pioneered by Silicon Valley start-up NebuAd Inc., has drawn fire from privacy advocates. They say the technology, known as deep packet inspection, raises major concerns and potentially violates federal and state wiretapping laws.
Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), chairman of the House telecommunications and Internet subcommittee, and four other subcommittee members agreed the practice violated customers' privacy unless they specifically opt-in to such a service.
Markey grilled NebuAd Chief Executive Robert Dykes during a hearing Thursday about the company's policies and criticized its requirement that customers opt out of the program if they do not want to be tracked.
"That's basically saying silence is consent and as a result you can do whatever you want with their information," Markey said. "I don't think, unless you've got clear affirmative permission, that you should be able to take this incredible leap into the breaching of the privacy of Americans."
Markey said such an opt-in requirement should be included in online privacy legislation he is working on.
NebuAd became the focus of congressional attention after it partnered with some service providers to monitor customers' Web use. The largest was Charter Communications Inc., which last month indefinitely delayed a planned test of NebuAd's service in some markets after complaints from privacy advocates and lawmakers, including Markey.
Dykes says his company protects privacy by developing anonymous profiles of Web users in "certain innocuous categories" such as travel. The company stays away from sensitive information such as medical issues.
"To adopt an across-the-board opt-in rule would potentially reduce the value of the advertising across the Internet, so I think major harm could be incurred that way," Dykes said.