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UPDATE: Charter Communications drops Web tracking plans

Tuesday, June 24, 2008 | 5:31 p.m. CDT; updated 1:07 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

ST. LOUIS — Charter Communications Inc. said it is dropping plans to track the Web usage of some high-speed Internet subscribers, citing concerns raised by customers.

In May, Charter announced a pilot program in four markets aimed at producing enough information for advertisers to target online ads for individual customers based on their viewing habits. But the St. Louis-based company said in a statement on Tuesday that some customers have raised concerns, so the program will be canceled before it begins.

“Our customers are always our first priority,” Charter said. “We will continue to take a thoughtful, deliberate approach with the goal to ultimately structure an advertising service that enhances the Internet experience for our customers and addresses questions and concerns they’ve raised.”

Charter is the nation’s fourth-largest cable TV company. It is controlled by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.

The plan drew criticism from some privacy advocates and from two members of Congress. Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., and Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, wrote to Neil Smit, Charter’s president and chief executive officer, soon after the plan was announced, asking him to put it on hold until the three could confer. Markey chairs the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet.

Charter had planned to begin the program as early as this month in Ft. Worth, Texas; San Luis Obispo, Calif.; Oxford, Mass.; and Newtown, Conn. Earlier Tuesday, Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal released a letter calling on Charter to drop the plan. Charter spokeswoman Anita Lamont said the decision to do so was unrelated to Blumenthal’s letter.

“The arrangement raises strikingly significant questions, such as what other uses will be made of this highly sensitive information and what measures Charter Communications is taking to safeguard such information,” Blumenthal said.

“Charter engaged in quick political damage control” in its decision to drop the Web tracking, said Jeff Chester of the consumer rights organization Center for Digital Democracy.

In a letter last month to Internet subscribers in the pilot areas, Charter Senior Vice President Joe Stackhouse wrote that they wouldn’t see more ads, just more ads relevant to each user. He promised the personal information gathered through the tracking would remain confidential.

Subscribers would have been able to opt out of the tracking, but critics like Blumenthal said the opt-out provision was inadequate.

Online ad firm NebuAd was partnering with Charter to do the tracking.


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