WASHINGTON — U.S. lawmakers are questioning the biggest U.S. Internet companies about whether they track their customers’ visits online and use the information to tailor Internet advertisements for them.
Senior members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee wrote to broadband Internet providers and other online companies on Friday, asking whether they have “tailored, or facilitated the tailoring of, Internet advertising based on consumers Internet search, surfing, or other use.”
The request comes amid rising scrutiny of the practice, known as deep-packet inspection, or DPI, by lawmakers and consumer advocates.
The letters were sent to more than 30 online companies, including large broadband providers such as Comcast Corp, AT&T Inc and Verizon Communications Inc, as well as search giant Google Inc and Microsoft Corp.
“We are interested in the nature and extent to which you engage in such practices, and the impact it could have on consumer privacy,” said the letter from Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman John Dingell and ranking committee Republican Joe Barton.
Representatives of Comcast, Google and Microsoft had no immediate comment on the letter. A Verizon spokesman said, “Of course we will review the letter and respond.” An AT&T spokesman said, “We look forward to responding promptly to the committee’s request.”
The letter asks where any ad-targeting practices have been used, how many consumers have been subjected to it and whether those people were ever notified about it, among other things.
Concerns about DPI were sharpened earlier this year when cable company Charter Communications disclosed plans for a pilot program, in partnership with an advertising company called NebuAd, to track customers.
Charter has said the service would be anonymous and would not collect or use any information that identifies individuals. It pledged to protect customers’ privacy and said they would be allowed to opt out of the program. But Charter later put the program on hold because of the privacy concerns.
NebuAd’s chief executive, Bob Dykes, has told lawmakers during congressional testimony that the company’s advertising network benefits consumers by serving them with more relevant online ads. He has said NebuAd does not collect personally identifiable information about Web users or store “raw data” linked to individuals.
One of the committee members who signed Friday’s letter, Democratic Rep. Edward Markey, of Massachusetts, has said broadband providers should be required to get their customers’ permission before the companies are allowed to track their online visits.