- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 14, 2002

Comcast Corp. said yesterday it will stop recording Web-browsing information of its 1 million high-speed Internet customers, after news of the practice drew outrage from privacy advocates, and a lawmaker warned the company it may have violated federal law.
The Philadelphia company, the third-largest cable provider, said in a statement that it would stop storing customer data "in order to completely reassure our customers that the privacy of their information is secure."
Reports surfaced Tuesday that Comcast was recording Web-browsing information of its customers without notifying them.
Yesterday, Rep. Edward J. Markey, Massachusetts Democrat and a privacy advocate, wrote a letter to Comcast President Brian Roberts, cautioning the company that it may have violated federal privacy laws under the Communications Act. The act requires cable operators to obtain prior consent to use personal information gathered from subscribers.
Shortly thereafter, Comcast issued its release stating that it would stop storing customer information.
"The reassurance they give consumers today that personal privacy will not be compromised as consumers utilize Comcast cable systems for web surfing, cable service or any other service offered by Comcast is vital," Mr. Markey said in a statement.
The announcement drew praise from privacy advocates, who had railed against the company for storing unnecessary information and not informing customers of changes in its privacy policies.
"It is significant to have a highly visible company say, 'We're going to value the privacy of our customers by doing this,'" said Lee Tien, a lawyer with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil liberties group in San Francisco.
Comcast began collecting and temporarily storing Internet addresses from customers six weeks ago, after it stopped using the now-bankrupt ExciteAtHome and began carrying broadband service over its own network. The company had argued that the information-gathering was needed as to ensure faster Web browsing and page loads, but those with knowledge of such technology say saving the information was not necessary.
Privacy advocates argued that Comcast did not update its published privacy policy, which appears on the company's Web site.
"If companies are going to keep track of customers' Web use, customers need to be notified of it ahead of time," said David Butler, spokesman for the Consumers Union in the District. "Most customers didn't know about this until it appeared in the newspaper."
But Comcast has insisted that the information collected was stored only temporarily before being purged, was not specific enough to be tracked to individual subscribers and was never shared. Furthermore, the company said, the changes were outlined specifically in user agreements, which customers were required to sign before the switch from ExciteAtHome.
The company says it collects the information in mass amounts, looks at it as a whole and uses it only for network management.
"Comcast has not shared and will not share personal information about where our subscribers go on the Web, either for any internal purpose or with any outside party, except as required by law," the company said yesterday.
Before Comcast's announcement of its policy change, some privacy experts had expressed concern that subpoenas from the FBI or similar federal agencies could make customer information public.
"That's the involuntary side, which is to say, once a company is collecting information about subscribers, they can't control what happens to it in all cases," said David Sobel, a lawyer with the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a D.C.-based civil liberties group.
In an interview yesterday, a Comcast official said it was unlikely such a scenario could occur, because customer information usually is deleted from the system almost immediately. Furthermore, because the information is collected in mass quantities and not viewed piece by piece, tracking individual users would be nearly impossible.
Other Internet service providers, such as America Online and Earthlink, say they do not store information about customers. Such information is collected during the Web-surfing process but usually not saved by the provider.
"I would think most ISPs don't keep that sort of information," said Les Seagraves, Earthlink's chief privacy officer.


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