Silicon Valley start-up sued over privacy invasion

Angry online subscribers who had their web surfing habits tracked in detail are suing a Silicon Valley start-up that created the technology and six internet service providers that briefly used it.

The 15 customers who filed the lawsuit in federal court demand more than $5 million in damages and are asking a judge to turn the case into a class action representing tens of thousands of internet subscribers.

The lawsuit targets Redwood City, California-based NebuAd Inc., which developed a way for internet service providers to scan the content of their customers' web traffic. The idea was that the ISPs could use the technology to deliver advertisements specifically targeted to individual subscribers' interests.

"Like a vacuum cleaner, everything passing through the pipe of the consumers' internet connection was sucked up, copied and forwarded," stated the lawsuit, which accuses NebuAd and the ISPs of breaking federal and state privacy laws.

Several US ISPs tried the technology before withdrawing as privacy advocates and members of Congress raised concerns over the summer.

The six ISPs named in the lawsuit each told Congress over the summer that it had dropped NebuAd's technology after only a few months. The ISPs are: Bresnan Communications LLC, Cable One Inc., CenturyTel Inc., Embarq Corp., WideOpenWest and Knology Inc.

"We are reviewing the complaint, which we intend to defend against vigorously," said NebuAd spokeswoman Janet McGraw, who declined further comment.