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Bowing to criticism, the nation’s third-largest cable television company promised to stop immediately recording the Web browsing activities of its one million high-speed Internet subscribers. Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., said the collection of data about customers by Comcast Corp. may have broken federal law, though company officials vigorously denied that. The president of Comcast’s cable communications division, Stephen Burke, said Wednesday the company would stop storing the information “to completely reassure our customers that the privacy of their information is secure.” Comcast also said it would hire a chief privacy officer and “will not let this situation rest until we are convinced that we have done everything that needs to be done to ensure that our customers are reassured.” Comcast’s reversal came a day after The Associated Press reported that Comcast had started recording each customer’s visits to Web pages without notification. Comcast said the decision was part of a technology overhaul to save money and speed up the network and was not intended to infringe on customers’ privacy. “It’s not that they did anything illegal, but they were abusing our trust,” said Douglas Anestad, a Comcast customer in Wayne, Pa. “Customers trust that companies don’t snoop on them without permission.” Anestad said he learned from a news story Wednesday that Comcast had been recording his Web browsing. He said his reaction was “complete and absolute shock.” Legal experts said Comcast’s records of customers’ online activity would be broadly available to police and the FBI under court orders and to lawyers in civil lawsuits. Chris Wysopal, a computer security expert with AtStake Inc., described the troves of sensitive information as “ready-made for law enforcement to subpoena.” “Any service provider should be very sensitive to any kinds of logging activity, because that information becomes a honey pot for government requests,” said James Dempsey of the Center for Democracy and Technology, a Washington civil-liberties group. Comcast said the information, collected over the past six weeks, had been stored 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. Markey, the ranking Democrat on the House Commerce telecommunications and the Internet subcommittee, told Comcast President Brian Roberts in a letter that he was uneasy about “the nature and extent of any transgressions of the law that may have resulted in consumer privacy being compromised.” Markey later commended Comcast for reversing its decision. 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’s original intent was 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. Markey said the law requires companies to destroy any personal information collected without a customer’s permission once it’s no longer needed. Burke, the Comcast executive, noted that customers must agree to the company’s subscriber and privacy policies, which give Comcast permission to review usage information “in aggregate form only” to improve its network speeds. Copyright 2002 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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