Charter Communications' high-speed Internet customers might want to look out - the telecommunications giant could soon track each Web site subscribers visit.
Charter announced plans to test the program sometime in June in Fort Worth, Texas, San Luis Obispo, Calif., Oxford, Mass., and Newtown, Conn.
Charter would track every Web site consumers visit and then disclose the data to NebuAd, an online-ad firm. The firm will use that information to target ads to individual Charter customers based on the Web sites they visit.
The telecom giant has created an opt-out process for subscribers, although they must provide their name and address to install an opt-out "cookie" on their computer.
Of course, computer users who clear cookies would have to reinstall it.
Based on how well the program works, Charter could expand the program to all of its nearly 3 million customers.
Charter's proposal, however, caught the attention of two U.S. House members. Massachusetts Democrat Rep. Edward J. Markey and Texas Republican Rep. Joe Barton sent a letter expressing serious concerns about the plan to Charter President and Chief Executive Officer Neil Smit.
Markey is the chairman of the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet and Barton is a ranking member on the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.
The lawmakers told Smit Charter's plan to collect information about its customers' Web-related habits without their prior consent "raises substantial questions related to Section 631" of the federal Communications Act.
Charter spokeswoman Anita Lamont said Smit and the two lawmakers and their staff held a "low key" meeting this week. She said Charter hasn't decided anything for certain and hasn't moved forward with its plan to pilot the program this month.
She also said Charter uses the opt-out process because the company sees it as an effective method of identifying user preferences. But she also said the door remains open on the issue.
The last year has been rather bumpy for Charter.
In January, Charter erased 14,000 e-mail accounts, deleting customers' messages, photographs and attachments.
Company officials blamed the mistake on a software error and said it happened during routine maintenance.
The results, however, were anything but routine. Charter still had the e-mail accounts, but the telecom's foul-up obliterated all information they contained.
To make up for the loss, a Charter spokesman said the company was "sincerely sorry" and applied a $50 credit to each customer who lost their e-mail.
And a consumer research poll consistently ranks Charter at the bottom of the customer and telecommunications services pile.
University of Michigan's American Customer Satisfaction Index, which began tracking the industry in 2001, ranked Charter last, in a tie with Comcast. PCWorld also ranked Charter's cable Internet service as worst among 14 major Internet service providers. And Consumer Reports in its February 2008 issue rated Charter's television/Internet/telephone bundle as the worst of all major national carriers.
Lamont said customer service is a primary concern for Charter and it takes the poor rankings seriously. She said the company has a metric that shows it's improving, but that will take a while to show up on customers' radar.