ISPs Are Maniacal Stalkers Who Read Your Email And Watch You Surf The Web

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 Our tipsters tell us that Comcast’s unpublished limit is around 200 GB per month.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?

ISPs Hog Rights in Fine Print [AP]
Every Click You Make [Washington Post]
(Photo: Getty)


Edit Your Comment

  1. FilthyHarry says:

    So… any given tech at my isp is jerking off to the same porn I am?

    Sweet, we’re like splooge-brothers.

  2. citking says:

    Maniacal is spelled wrong.

  3. yukonrye says:

    Oh man…I hope they can distinguish between what I am beating off to vs. the random internet crap I click on. While it’s true I watched a 10 second clip of a 600 lb woman in a bikini laying on top of a happy-as-hell 100 lb man. It does not mean I touched myself while doing so.

  4. Grrrrrrr, now with two buns made of bacon. says:

    Wait..let me act surprised? Do I looked surprised? How about now?

    Always assume the Internet is being monitored by somebody..if not your ISP, then some federal agency. Thankfully, most of us are boring enough that the powers-that-be will move on and try to find somebody that’s doing something convictible.

  5. DogTown says:

    When they have the model that the Bush administration projects and enables, why would any ISP give a shit about the first amendment?

  6. forgottenpassword says:

    So since I am on someone else’s wifi network …. they are going to be targeted with ads for metal detecting & tentacle rape porn?

    Since I like using wifi networks that are not neccessarily mine…. I dont post intimate details about my life that can be traced back to me specifically. I also dont access my bank or other financial info online with this computer or wifi networks.

    I am already paranoid about what I say/put online as it is.

  7. forgottenpassword says:


    note: same goes with email communications.

  8. landsnark says:

    If you use gmail, point your browser to
    (that’s https) instead of

    This SSL encrypts your email not just during login, but while you are reading/sending emails. So at least your ISP will have to do some work before reading your email.

  9. dry-roasted-peanuts says:

    Really? Time to start surfing more grandpa porn…

  10. CyberSkull says:

    It took me 5 tries to submit this to Digg. Damn you Comcast!


  11. azntg says:

    For all I care, my ISP can look at what I do online:

    1) I’m an active Consumerist reader (gee, is that one way to tell them that they’re in for a fight if they do something stupid and think that they can get away with it)

    2) I’m active in a couple of credit related communities.

    3) I like to collaborate lesson plans for a high school class online with my teaching partner

    4) I tend for my finances daily

    5) I love to download. Period.

  12. iluvhatemail says:

    For all I care, the ISPs can all go to hell if they invade my privacy like this. All I can hope for is a few congressional representatives to throw a stink about this but I’m guessing our rights to privacy takes a backseat to potential ad revenue. I fear I will regress into a cabin out in the woods and become a hermit if news like this keeps happening.

  13. jefffromNY says:

    As one who supports the USA Patriot Act, I hate this. In what non-government sanctioned situation should my ISP be allowed to look at my private stuff?

  14. StoneKitten says:

    Which is why on my home pc I only view cuteoverload and lolcats.

  15. bluewyvern says:

    I started out laughing at the pic (great pic), then sobered when I got to the article.


    So, uh, is there a way to encrypt your traffic? Anything?

  16. nevergod says:

    glad i rent and someone elses name is on the bill *thumbs up*

  17. elijah_dukes_mayonnaise says:

    Next year, they will probably find a way to bill for this consumer-protection monitoring — maybe a CPM fee

  18. rjhiggins says:

    @landsnark: Don’t know if you noticed, but Google redirects you to a secure site anyway. Your two links end up in exactly the same place.

  19. DogTown says:

    “As one who supports the USA Patriot Act, I hate this. In what non-government sanctioned situation should my ISP be allowed to look at my private stuff?”

    Sorry for you on this one jeffery, but I think you already know the answer is that the ISP’s can and do anything non-government that they please because the will to stop this practice doesn’t effectively exist.

  20. KD17 says:

    If they could also reply to my emails for me that would save me a lot of time and wouldn’t bother me so much then if they read my email then.

  21. I wonder what happens when you are working from home, and viewing secure information. Hm.

  22. legwork says:

    Having started an ISP back in ancient times, my first reaction was to say we only put this stuff in our TOS to cover our asses during network and account troubleshooting. Oh, it also helped when an Aryan group used us for their website before we realized it. (oops)

    But, given the rampant spread of identity/behavior sales it’s hard to imagine a situation where nobody would use their position in the data stream to harvest private information.

    Hey, if it isn’t illegal it must be okay, right? /gag

  23. mikelotus says:

    @HRHKingFriday: you should be using something like a secure vpn connection already or your company is pretty stupid.

  24. nardo218 says:

    I remember back during my Prodigy days (93ish), when ISPs used to send back your email if you used profanity, that the courts ruled it unlawful for ISPs to track email. What happened?

  25. Micromegas says:

    I hate this just as much as anyone else who hates people needlessly meddling in their lives, but it seems to me to be just another sign that privacy in America is dead and not coming back to life anytime soon.

  26. zaka says:

    If you’re really worried here, read up on things like mix nets and onion routing. There are ways to foil your ISP. If you really don’t want them reading private email, get an account through a service other than your ISP, then connect to it using TOR. The email service provider doesn’t know who you are (unless identifying info is containted in the email, or you give it to them) and your ISP has no clue about the email account. Alternatively, you could use PGP or some other sort of public key crypto system.

  27. vastrightwing says:

    Hold on everyone! I want to assure you that all of your ISPs take your privacy rights very seriously. They will not invade our rights, except for ATT who got caught in bed with the NSA. But all the others are looking out for us. I’m almost certain.

  28. Ghede says:

    Meh. Government is worse. I’ve never heard of anyone getting placed on an ISP no-fly list for what websites they have visited.

  29. TruPhan says:

    So…is my ISP reading this as I type it right now?

  30. ExposeTheSky says:

    Probobly. I wouldn’t worry. If you want to talk about dirty things with people through e-mail it’s not like they can come put you in jail for it. I don’t care what they read from me. Offcourse I’m not working with underground agents to take over islands either.

  31. Stephen Colon says:

    Hi Verizon! FYI: I hate you! I only still use you because of that God-forsaken contract!

  32. GOKOR says:

    @jefffromNY: you do know that it’s the Patriot Act which leads to this sort of behavior being oked by the government, right?

    The Patriot Act is one of the worst things the Gov. has done in a very long time.

  33. GOKOR says:

    @nardo218: Patriot Act.

  34. cascascas says:

    There’s a huge stink going on about this in the UK. Apparently, BT, the UK’s incumbent phone provider and a large ISP, trialled a new profiling system in 2006 without informing customers, and this may be illegal under UK wiretapping law. See []

    Phorm is UK company which is also talking to US ISPs: []

  35. ChuckECheese says:

    Everybody knows that real stalkers wait in their cars in the parking lot while you’re at work. And they’ve changed. All they want is for you to give them just one more chance. Just one. Please. Well then, I’m not leaving. Go ahead and call the police. This is public property–what are they gonna do?

  36. RvLeshrac says:


    It has already been said, but the USAPATRIOT act is what allows the ISPs to do this.



    No clause in any contract with your ISP allows them to look at any banking or HIPA-covered information, fortunately. The government isn’t even allowed access to HIPA-covered data without a warrant, PATRIOT or no PATRIOT.

    So, at least for the time being, you’re safe in your banking and insurance-related activities.

  37. RvLeshrac says:


    Actually, the HIPA part only covers you unless there’s an express consent agreement – but your physician and/or insurance company would have to be a party to that agreement, as well.

  38. Patriot act has nothing to do with it. ISP’s our busineses which own their servers, network switches and routers, and of course the high-bandwidth connections to the backbone. They can stipulate whatever they want in their contracts and you either agree or don’t agree. It doesn’t require any sort of special acts, just standard contract law.

    Fact: ISP’s our not federally regulated, accept under standard FTC and FCC rules (mostly pre-existing).

    Fact: If you want to send sensitive, personal or otherwise private information to someone, don’t use e-mail.

    Fact: If you have to use e-mail, use encryption. Plenty of free solutions out there.

    Fact: Employees of many businesses which are granted special access to do their job may well abuse their authority to “snoop”. Snooping is far more prevalent than anyone has realized.

    As for the articles, they are a bit over-sensational. No ISP can actually employ the time and/or people to actively read all of their customers e-mails. And it’s substantially more difficult to even try this if an ISP is not actively hosting your e-mail.
    My ISP doesn’t host my e-mail. I control the server all my e-mail goes to and all my e-mail traffic with that server is encrypted. The Datacenter the server rides on could sniff all the traffic from my server and read my e-mail. But it’d take a lot more resources than they could afford. It’s a small little datacenter.

    But seriously, the Washington Post part is probably full of dozens of errors. I rarely see mainstream news journalism ever properly comprehend the technology they report on.

  39. Bladefist says:

    Can and Do are two different words. I doubt they do. It costs too much to employee people to do that, and they probably only do it on request by the government.

    Anyone who has ever worked with packet sniffers, knows you guys are freaking out. There are so many different kinds of packets, and with broadband, so much more information coming through. It would take some extreme software I’ve never heard of it, or 20 million brilliant packet sniffing experts to ‘spy’ on their customers.

  40. bigmac12 says:

    I went to look for the cute bunnies and found them humping and then…….

  41. Blueskylaw says:

    “Internet service providers are actively tracking 100,000 users, reading every email they send and every website they visit.”

    How many employees does it take to read the e-mails of 100,000 people on a regular basis?

  42. Mr. Gunn says:

    azntg: They’d be fools to let it get out that they do this, because the main defense they have against expensive-to-comply-with “internet decency” legislation is actually that they’re just a portal, and can’t monitor content.

  43. LionelEHutz says:

    @Blueskylaw: “How many employees does it take to read the e-mails of 100,000 people on a regular basis?”

    About 567, all based in Banglore, and all making about 5 Indian rupees per hour.

  44. Keat says:

    @Blueskylaw: “How many employees does it take to read the e-mails of 100,000 people on a regular basis?”

    They only need employess to read the emails that set off the automated keyword filters.