- Comcast says it will stop storing information about the surfing habits of its more than 1 million customers after being roundly criticised by privacy experts and being asked to explain the policy by a member of the US House telecommunications committee.
Comcast President Stephen B Burke said in the statement that the cable company had begun to collect and store IP and web-address information about six weeks ago but that the information was "never connected to individual subscribers." The statement said the information has been purged in the interest of privacy.
"Beginning immediately, we will stop storing this individual customer information in order to completely reassure our customers that the privacy of their information is secure," Burke said.
Massachusetts Congressman Edward J Markey (Democrat -
Massachusetts), who raised questions about the practice, says he is pleased by Comcast's decision.
"I applaud the Comcast Corporation for the rapid explanation of how it utilises subscriber information and for its announcement that it will stop certain data gathering practices," says Markey, the ranking Democrat on the House telecommunications committee. "I also commend Comcast for reiterating its commitment to consumer privacy.
"I look forward to further clarification of how Comcast intends to handle collection and use of personal data, consistent with the Cable Act, as Comcast launches other services over its cable systems to subscribers," Markey adds.
The news also cheered David Sobel from the Electronic Privacy Information Centre (EPIC) and Ari Schwartz, associate director of the Centre for Democracy & Technology, who criticised the policy earlier in the day.
"Comcast appears to have recognised, belatedly, how strongly users feel about the privacy of their online activities," Sobel says. "This is just the latest in a series of situations where public opinion on privacy has quickly forced a company to change its practices."
"We applaud the decision to stop the practice," Schwartz says. "We didn't understand it from the beginning. It would have been simpler for everyone if Comcast had thought about the privacy implications from the beginning and never started the practice."
The initial decision by Comcast to collect personal data sparked a controversy when it was first made public in an Associated Press story yesterday morning.
Markey's office sent a letter to Comcast yesterday morning, in which the congressman wrote that he was concerned Comcast might be violating federal laws regarding privacy.
"Consumer privacy in the digital era is fundamental to ensuring the trust between citizens and the owners of the nation's communication networks and services," Markey wrote. "I believe that many consumers would be understandably concerned if our nation's cable operators began to monitor Americans' use of cable systems for other services such as telecommunications services, including broadband access to the Internet via cable modems."
The issue of whether a cable operator is bound by federal cable laws regulating privacy when it's delivering internet service has privacy experts expressing diverging opinions.
Schwartz believes a cable company providing internet service wouldn't be able to sell or trade any of the information it gathered about its customers. According to the federal laws, Schwartz says that private information about customers had to be kept private.
Markey put forward the same view in his letter to Comcast in which he quoted from the statute and reminded Comcast that it could collect information only if it had either the written or electronic permission of the consumers.
But Sobel believes that recent changes to federal law in the wake of the September 11 attacks and other case law might exempt information gathered about web surfing from the cable television law.
"The Patriot Act, recently passed by Congress, said that when a cable company is acting as an ISP, at least for law enforcement purposes, they are not subject to the cable act," Sobel says. That may leave the door open for businesses to share information, as well. But even if that's not the case, private individuals and government investigators could still gain access to the records by subpoena, Sobel says.
Other internet companies were quick to point out that they don't collect private information about their customers. Englewood, Colorado-based AT&T Broadband, which Comcast is in the process of buying, collects only bandwidth usage information, and none of that is tied to individuals, says Sarah Eder, an AT&T spokeswoman.
America Online in Dulles, Virginia, also stressed that it doesn't collect private information. AOL spokesman Nicholas Graham said information about which sites are popular with members is tracked, but data on who goes to those sites isn't.