It seems that Charter, an Internet service provider (ISP) based in St. Louis, Missouri, is having a bit of trouble keeping its customers happy. Last year, Charter came in dead last in PC World’s rankings of “The Best and Worst ISPs,” which was based on a survey of over 6,400 readers. Meanwhile, BroadbandReports currently rates Charter as 22nd out of 25 listed cable Internet providers, in accordance with user reviews submitted to the site. Based on these two facts alone, we can safely conclude that there are a lot of unsatisfied Charter customers out there. So, what is the company doing to remedy this situation? They’ve decided to offer their users “enhanced” service, free of charge.
Just what does this “enhanced” service entail, you ask? Why, Deep Packet Inspections (DPI), highly targeted advertising and a substantial loss of privacy. As The Consumerist reported on Monday, Charter recently sent out letters to a number of its broadband customers, notifying them of the newly “enhanced online experience” that they will soon enjoy. Quite plainly, Charter will monitor the online activity of these users using DPI gear, making note of the pages that they visit, the terms that they search for and the services that they use. The company will then use this information to pipe highly targeted advertisements to individual users. If you’ve ever used Google’s Gmail service, you’ve likely noticed that the ads that appear along the side of your emails are tied to the terms that appear in your correspondences. Well, imagine what it would be like if those kinds of ads started following you around wherever you went on the Internet and you’re starting to get the picture.
It goes without saying that this sort of service raises a number of red flags, the most obvious of which relate to privacy. In order to serve these targeted ads, Charter monitors your activity on the web and passes that data along to NebuAD, an online advertising company that specializes in targeted advertising. NebuAD has partnerships with ad publishers and uses this data to match you up with ads from its partners, which are then dropped into ad slots that NebuAD owns, in real time. To NebuAD and Charter’s credit, users are not identified in NebuAD’s system using their IP or MAC address. Also, NebuAD does not overwrite existing ads on websites, though the company has admitted that it possesses the technological capability to do so (it’s likely that they’re well aware of the legal Pandora’s Box they would be opening if they did overwrite ads). Still, the fact remains that the company is collecting information on users’ surfing habits and if NebuAD and Charter wanted to use this information for another means, there would be nothing stopping them.
The second problem with this program lies in the nature of the DPI gear itself (if you’re not intimately familiar with deep packet inspection, I would highly recommend reading this introductory guide). As Ars Technica notes, “[c]urrent gear is so sophisticated that it can reconstitute e-mails and IM conversations out of asymmetric traffic flows” and can “essentially peek ‘under the hood’ of any non-encrypted packet to take a look at what it contains.” This being the case, it’s not hard to imagine how DPI technology might be used for more nefarious means like copyright filtering and general Internet monitoring. And lest we forget, monitoring traffic is the first step toward regulating and prioritizing traffic. Thus, DPI appliances can be seen as a core technological enabler of the non-neutral or “tiered” network.
So, what’s to be done about Charter? If you’re a Charter user and you received a notice stating that you’re slated to receive “enhanced” service, you can opt-out of the service on Charter’s website. As The Consumerist notes, however, even this process is not without peril: in order to opt-out, users must “submit their personal information to Charter via an unencrypted form and download a privacy cookie that must be downloaded again each time a user clears his web cache or uses a different browser.” In the long term, however, it’s probably going to take a public outcry to stop companies like Charter and NebuAD from monitoring user data. In the UK, a company called Phorm has launched an extremely similar service and the reaction from users on that side of the pond has been anything but positive. While it remains to be seen if the bad press will be enough to shame Phorm out of deep packet inspections, it has at least forced the company to operate in a more transparent manner, in order to justify its services. Will targeted advertising serve as the beachhead for copyright filtering and tiered networks? We sure hope not. But you unsatisfied Charter customers out there had better keep complaining, just in case.