‘Asian Achievers,’ ‘Gay’: How ISPs Label Customers for Advertisers

A new report from the FTC on ISP data collection includes an 11 page list of the categories its sorted you into based on your browsing history.
October 22, 2021, 6:53pm
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Image: Pkin Songmor photo via Getty Images

A new FTC report has revealed that ISPs collect and sell a horrifying amount of sensitive data about their customers. The report also revealed that ISPs categorize people by their browsing data to make it easier for advertisers to target consumers directly using highly specific, sometimes bizarre, and generally concerning categories. The list of categories included examples such as “viewership-gay,” “Jewish,” and “Gospel and Grits.”

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Targeted advertising based on browsing data isn’t new, it’s how Facebook and Google make the bulk of their profits, but the FTC report revealed the level of involvement ISPs have in the process. “Several of the ISPs in our study have the ability to target consumers on a granular basis, because unlike many other entities, these ISPs have access to each of the websites a consumer visits, and they can target based on subscriber information,” the report said. “At least three ISPs report combining consumers’ personal information, app usage, and/or browning information for advertising purposes.”

The categories created through this process can get highly personal and bizarre. An appendix in the report is an 11 page list of ISP created targeted advertising categories. It includes “Diaper and Debit Cards,” “Footloose and Family Free,” “Thriving Boomers,” “True Grit Americans,” “Cul de Sac Diversity,” “Counterfeited pragmatics,” “Bohemian Grove,” “Rural Southern Bliss,” “Small Town Shallow Pockets,” “Hispanic Harmony,” “Assimilation or Origin Score,” “Jewish,” and “Asian Achievers.”

Separating people into categories based on their browsing habits does more than make it easier to advertise to them—it can also lead to discrimination. “These categories allow advertisers to target consumers by their race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, economic status, political affiliations, or religious beliefs, raising questions about how such advertising might affect communities of color, historically marginalized groups, and economically vulnerable populations, or reveal sensitive details about consumers’ browsing habits,” the study said.

A real world example of this is a current series of lawsuits filed by Housing and Urban Development (HUD) against Facebook. According to HUD, Facebook allows companies advertising homes to micro target Facebook users based on their race, color, religion, sex, familial status, natural orgin and disability, which is illegal.

“If Congress needed any more proof that America desperately needs a consumer privacy law, the Federal Trade Commission’s report about internet service providers’ rampant abuse of their customers’ private, personal browsing information should be enough to get Washington to act,” U.S. Senator Ron Wyden [D-Oregon], said in a statement.  “Whether it’s advertisers, tech companies or Big Cable, corporate America is showing absolute contempt for the idea that consumers can control personal details about their lives.”

Sen. Wyden also laid the blame for some of the problems at the feet of the previous chairman of the FCC. “It’s worth remembering that former Federal Communications Commission Chair Ajit Pai opened the floodgates to ISPs’ unchecked use of browsing data when he repealed the Obama-era broadband privacy and net neutrality regulations,” Sen. Wyden said. “The FCC needs every tool available to stop cable companies from gouging consumers and selling their data.”