WASHINGTON – Comcast Corp., the nation's third-largest cable company, pledged Wednesday to immediately stop recording the Web browsing activities of each of its 1 million high-speed Internet subscribers.
Comcast said in a statement that it will stop storing the information "in order to completely reassure our customers that the privacy of their information is secure." The Associated Press reported Tuesday that the company had started recording each customer's visit to a Web page as part of a technology overhaul to save money and speed up the network.
Comcast reassured customers Wednesday that the information had been stored only temporarily, was purged automatically every few days and "has never been connected to individual subscribers." But it said it will stop recording the information, anyway.
In response to the AP's coverage, Rep. Ed Markey, an aggressive privacy advocate in Congress, pressed Comcast President Brian Roberts in a letter Wednesday about the recording. Markey said the company's action could be in violation of federal law.
Markey, D-Mass., wrote that he was concerned about "the nature and extent of any transgressions of the law that may have resulted in consumer privacy being compromised."
The ranking Democrat on the House Commerce subcommittee on telecommunications and the Internet, Markey said the 1984 Cable Act prohibits Comcast from collecting personal information from its Internet subscribers without obtaining "prior written or electronic consent." The act was originally intended to protect the privacy of cable TV customers.
The 1984 law does allow cable operators to collect private information if it can show it needs the information to operate its service.
Comcast Executive Vice President Dave Watson said Tuesday that the company was recording no more information about its customers than is common in the industry and no more than needed to optimize its network.
He said that while the company was recording details about customer Web browsing, it did not use the information to build profiles of online consumer behavior.
"Comcast absolutely does not share personal information about our customers, and we have the utmost respect for our customers' privacy," Watson said.
Outside experts, including the vendor whose powerful software Comcast is using, said Comcast was recording more information about the online activities of customers than necessary for the technology enhancements.
"It's not needed," said Steve Russell, a vice president of Inktomi Corp. Russell said Inktomi's software also records other information from Comcast subscribers, which can include passwords for Web sites and credit-card numbers under limited circumstances.
Russell discounted privacy concerns, saying engineers are using some of the information to improve Comcast's performance and that many other Internet devices record data racing across computer networks.
But two of the nation's largest Internet providers, America Online and Earthlink, said they purposely do not collect details about the Web browsing of their combined 35 million subscribers.
"We definitely would have no interest in doing that at all," Earthlink's chief privacy officer, Les Seagraves, said. "We don't want to have customer records about where they've visited."
AOL spokesman Nicholas Graham said, "We do not track the personal Web activity of our members for privacy reasons."
Before Wednesday's announcement, a Comcast spokesman, Tim Fitzpatrick, said Web browsing was already being recorded for its subscribers in Detroit and in parts of Delaware and Virginia, and would be extended across the nation by the end of this week.
"I'm furious," said George Imburgia, an Internet security expert in Dover, Del., and a Comcast customer. "They're monitoring and logging everybody's activities." Imburgia compared the monitoring to the surveillance software the FBI uses. "It's an evil, Carnivore-type thing," he said.
Comcast's recording is part of an overhaul requiring new and existing customers to use behind-the-scenes technology known as a "proxy," which funnels a person's Web surfing through powerful, centralized Internet computers controlled by Comcast. Customers previously could volunteer to use these proxy computers, but they are automatically activated under the new system for all subscribers.
To speed performance, these proxy computers retain copies of the most-popular Web sites that customers visit. Comcast said it records which are the most popular Web sites to determine which ones it should copy to its centralized computers, although leading industry experts said there was no need to match Web surfing back to the specific Internet addresses of subscribers.
Experts said Comcast's own records of online activity would be available to police and the FBI with a court order and to lawyers in civil lawsuits, though Comcast said it did not begin the tracking because of a government request.
"Once you're sitting on it, you're really inviting all kinds of requests," said David Sobel of the Washington-based Electronic Privacy Information Center, a civil-liberties group. "If they can't identify a need to be collecting it, they should take the necessary steps to eliminate it."