Internet service providers are actively tracking 100,000 users, reading every email they send and every website they visit, according to the Washington Post. The report coincides with a damning Associated Press investigation of ISP contracts which finds that they reserve broad rights to read essentially anything you view on the internet without any intervening supervision or regulation.
“The network is asserting almost complete control of the users’ ability to use their network as a gateway to the Internet,” said Marvin Ammori, general counsel of Free Press, a Washington-based consumer advocacy group. “They become gatekeepers rather than gateways.”
But the provisions are rarely enforced, except against obvious miscreants like spammers. Consumer outrage would have been the likely result if AT&T Inc. took advantage of its stated right to block any activity that causes the company “to be viewed unfavorably by others.”
Jonathan Zittrain, professor of Internet governance and regulation at Oxford University, said this clause was a “piece of boilerplate that is passed around the corporate lawyers like a Christmas fruitcake.
“The idea that they would ever invoke it and point to it is nuts, especially since their terms of service already say they can cut you off for any reason and give you a refund for the balance of the month,” Zittrain said.
AT&T removed the “unfavorably by others” wording in February after The Associated Press asked about the reason behind it. Subscribers, however, wouldn’t know that it was gone unless they checked the contract word for word: The document still said it was last updated Oct. 8, 2007.
Most companies reserve the right to change the contracts at any time, without any notice except an update on the Web site. Verizon used to say it would notify subscribers of changes by e-mail, but the current contract just leaves that as an option for the company.
Specifically, ISP’s reserve the right to:
- Read Your Email: No warrant or court involvement required. They can read your email for any reason, at any time, without any oversight.
- Ban Websites: Any content deemed “inappropriate” can disappear behind an impromptu version of the Great Chinese Firewall.
- Boot You For Using The Service: You can be booted for excessively using your unlimited connection. Our tipsters tell us that Comcast’s unpublished limit is around 200 GB per month.
Separately, the Washington Post claims that some ISPs are taking full advantage of these provisions to fine-tune their ad-spewing systems:
The online behavior of a small but growing number of computer users in the United States is monitored by their Internet service providers, who have access to every click and keystroke that comes down the line.
The companies harvest the stream of data for clues to a person’s interests, making money from advertisers who use the information to target their online pitches.
The extent of the practice is difficult to gauge because some service providers involved have declined to discuss their practices. Many Web surfers, moreover, probably have little idea they are being monitored.
But at least 100,000 U.S. customers are tracked this way, and service providers have been testing it with as many as 10 percent of U.S. customers, according to tech companies involved in the data collection.
Although common tracking systems, known as cookies, have counted a consumer’s visits to a network of sites, the new monitoring, known as “deep-packet inspection,” enables a far wider view — every Web page visited, every e-mail sent and every search entered. Every bit of data is divided into packets — like electronic envelopes — that the system can access and analyze for content.
We really dislike the pessimists writing for the AP’s investigative unit. They break all the sad stories, the ones proving our water is a pharmaceutical factory and that large corporations use our private data for their amusement. Report on something positive for a change, like: aren’t bunnies cute? How’d they get so cute? And no, it has nothing to do with toxins or a distorted marketplace. They’re just cute, ok? We want 5,000 words on the topic in our inbox by Friday. Now ISPs, in exchange for allowing you to read this uplifting report, you agree not to read any of our other emails. Deal?