Is your Internet provider watching you?

In a staff piece that appeared in PC World today, I was reminded of how “comfortable” most Internet users are with the companies who provide them with their Internet service — not realizing just how much information about them their ISP has.

According to the Consumer Reports National Research Center, 72 percent of Americans worry their online activities are being tracked. Forty-three percent of Americans “incorrectly believe a court order is required to monitor activities online.”

Another 48 percent “incorrectly believe their consent is required for companies to use the personal information they collect from online activities.” This exhibits a fundamental misunderstanding of the laws and lawlessness of the Net.

Yesterday, The Senate held a hearing about behavioral targeting — wherein companies watch your online habits and tailor content to your interests — and ISP leaders like Verizon and AT&T agreed, in principle, stop the practice.

They vowed never to engage in tracking services and essentially challenged the rest of the Web to do the same. What they did not do was endorse legislation. In fact, Tom Tauke, Verizon’s executive vice president for public affairs, policy and communications, explicitly said: “At this juncture, we aren’t prepared to endorse legislation.”

Instead, ISPs want to alter the rules of the tracking game through self-regulation and the participation of related entities such as search engines and ad companies. The idea is to build an opt-in system for behavioral tracking. If you want your ads to correlate to your browsing experience, you must first give “meaningful, affirmative consent.”

The benefits to an opt-in service are that behavioral advertisers will collect a dedicated cluster of individuals willing to express preference for the content they see on the Internet. This will give companies a clearer picture of who is looking for what.

But the very concept of opting-in to this kind of service may frighten many out of participation. Essentially, you agree to be stalked. Others will snort at yet another pop-up window on their computer and click “yes” without reading the fine print.

ISPs are right to reject the notion of legislation and instead opt for self-regulation. It leaves a lot of the decision-making in the consumer’s hands. But if we have been unable to opt-out of behavioral targeting thus far, how can we be expected to understand the scope of an opt-in service?

Another roadblock is the proposal’s scope. No one knows what ad agencies and search engines will do. ISP’s stated that, if legislation were to come, they would want the entire party to be there. But that spells drawn-out sessions, stalled proceedings, and likely, a package no one can agree upon.

This stance against behavioral tracking is an honorable one, and sounds really good on paper. Perhaps my lack of faith in big companies shaking hands with big government compels me to doubt its outcome. There are a few obstacles on the way to the clarity these companies hope to achieve.