US lawmakers demand info on web tracking

A congressional committee wants the largest US telecommunications and internet companies to explain whether they target online advertising based on consumers' search queries and web surfing habits, an Associated Press report said.

In an expanding inquiry into the state of consumer privacy on the internet, House Energy and Commerce Committee leaders sent letters to more than 30 companies, demanding to know whether they track where their users go online and use that information to deliver personalized advertising.

Among the companies receiving the letters were Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, AT&T, Comcast, Qwest Communications, Verizon Communications, Time Warner's AOL unit and Time Warner Cable.

The companies were given a week to respond, the Associated Press report further said.

The letters build on an earlier probe by the committee into 'deep packet inspection' technologies, which can track where people go and what they do on the internet.

The committee already has been investigating Embarq, an internet service provider based in Overland Park, Kansas, that has been testing technology to track the online behavior of its customers and then serve up targeted ads based on their presumed interests. And both the House and Senate Commerce Committees have been looking into a small Silicon Valley startup called NebuAd, which developed personalized-ad technology that Embarq and other internet service providers have used.

But the latest letters broaden the inquiry to encompass much bigger and better-known players on the internet. The letters seek details on how many consumers have been tracked, whether those people have been notified and whether they were given the option to 'opt out' of it. The committee also wants to know how the collected information is used and how it is gathered _ for example, whether the companies aggregate data from different online applications.

Ari Schwartz, vice president of the Center for Democracy & Technology, a civil liberties group, was further quoted saying he is optimistic that the congressional inquiries could lead to general privacy legislation that would safeguard consumer data gathered both online and offline.