Comcast Sued Over Web Monitoring

After enduring a firestorm over its monitoring of cable-modem subscribers' Web-surfing activities earlier this year, Comcast Corp. now faces a class-action lawsuit that claims it violated federal privacy law.

The action, filed in a U.S. District Court in Michigan by Jeffrey Klimas, claims the Philadelphia-based MSO's now-discontinued practice of monitoring its 1 million high-speed data customers' Internet destinations violated the 1984 Cable Act, which bars MSOs from collecting personal information from customers without prior consent. The Cable Act does allow cablers to collect information if they can prove it is necessary for their network operations.

That word "necessary" is key, according to Steven Goren, the Bingham Farms, Mich., lawyer who filed the suit.

"It was certainly part of — this idea of caching — was certainly a part of rendering a cable service or other service. But what they were caching and what they were collecting was not necessary to render the cable service," Goren said. "There is really no interpretation yet of this act and how all of those words should be pieced together."

Comcast, which indeed said it was using the data to increase the efficiency of its new cable-modem network, discontinued the monitoring on Feb. 13, after a flood of protests from privacy advocates and subscribers.

The suit seeks damages of $100 per day for the December through February period in which Comcast was actively monitoring traffic, as set down in the Cable Act. At some point, Goren said, he will move for class certification, "and that will probably be months down the road."

Although some might try to connect the timing of the suit to Comcast's pending $45 billion merger with AT&T Broadband, Goren said it was not timed to affect that process.

"It may make it more significant from Comcast's perspective, but I didn't time this specifically based on that," he said.

Comcast has issued a statement saying it does respect its cable-modem customers' privacy and "has not in any way compromised their privacy or linked Internet usage data to personally identifying information about any specific subscriber.

"In addition, Comcast has not shared, and will not share, personal information about where our subscribers go on the Internet, except as required by law or as authorized by our subscribers," the MSO said. "We believe the lawsuit is without merit and Comcast intends to defend itself vigorously."