Privacy Advocates Criticize Nortel's New Product Line

Just one day after the reintroduction of an Internet privacy bill in the U.S. Senate, Nortel Networks Corp. drew fire from privacy advocates for the tracking capabilities built into its Personal Internet product portfolio.

Tuesday, Nortel unveiled its Personal Internet products, which are designed to help service providers, hosted applications providers, and content providers tailor their services to match the habits of individual users. But the ability to customize ads or content to match users' Web-surfing habits also would let service providers collect personal data on subscribers and sell it to third parties or use it to target ads to specific types of users, according to the privacy advocacy group Junkbusters.

"ISPs and telcos should not be monitoring where their customers go to build up a profile of them for targeted advertising," Junkbusters president Jason Catlett said in a statement. "Most people resent this intrusion," he said, citing the case of Internet advertiser DoubleClick Inc., which dropped plans to match users' Web histories with other personal information such as their names and addresses. DoubleClick's decision was in response to users' protests and an investigation by the Federal Trade Commission.

Nortel's launch of its Personal Internet products landed the company squarely in the middle of the Internet privacy controversy. The product portfolio includes its Shasta Personal Content Portal, its Alteon Personal Content Director, the Alteon Personal Content Cache, the Alteon Content Distribution Manager, and the Alteon 780 Web Switch. According to Nortel, the product suite lets its service-provider customers identify individual Web users, deliver custom content and services to them from the fastest content site, and improve the overall efficiency of their networks.

Privacy advocates, though, quickly pointed out that those capabilities leave subscribers vulnerable to the collection of data about them by service providers. In response to questions about the possibility that service providers could use the Personal Internet products to collect data about their subscribers, Nortel execs say it's possible, but service providers run the risk of angering customers by doing that.

The Nortel controversy follows the reintroduction of a bill in the U.S. Senate by Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., that would strictly limit the use of software products that track how individuals use the Internet without their knowledge. The bill is similar to one introduced last year by Edwards, but the Senate took no action on it before adjourning for the year. The bill introduced Tuesday would prohibit the makers of the so-called "spyware" programs from collecting data on users' Web activities without their permission.

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