It’s the stuff of a science fiction thriller: A big company shadowing your every move on the Internet, compiling a detailed profile of every web site you visit, how long you stay, and what you did while you were there.

But this nightmarish scenario is all too real – and it is playing out right now. A number of small Internet service providers are already stealthily tracking their customers as they surf the web and sharing that information with online advertising firms.

Wait, it gets worse.

This last week it was disclosed that Charter Communications, one of the country’s largest cable broadband providers, is teaming up with a controversial online advertising company called NebuAd to track Charter customer’s web surfing activities in order to deliver “targeted” online advertising.

Charter plans to begin the tracking in four markets next month; Ft. Worth, Texas; San Luis Obispo, Calif.; Oxford, Mass.; and Newtown, Conn.

Charter recently sent a letter to its customers in those markets telling them they are about to receive “enhanced online experience.” Charter wrote that the NebuAd ads generated by the deal “will better reflect the interests you express through your Web-surfing activity. You will not see more ads – just ads that are more relevant to you.”

Charter says customers will be able to opt-out of the tracking, by providing their name and address and installing an “opt-out cookie” on their computer. PC World has done an excellent job explaining the technical details in an article you can read by clicking here.

Two powerful members of Congress reacted quickly to the news about the Charter/NubuAd deal last week, saying that the planned opt-out option is not adequate.

In a letter to Charter Communications CEO Neil Smit, House Telecommunications Subcommittee Chairman Edward Markey, D-Mass., and House Energy and Commerce Committee Ranking Minority Member Joe Barton, R-Tx., expressed deep concerns about the NebuAd deal. Click here to see the letter.

“Any service to which a subscriber does not affirmatively subscribe and that can result in the collection of information about the web-related habits and interests of a subscriber…raises substantial questions,” the two legislators wrote.

Markey was even blunter in a written statement he issued with the letter.

“Charter Communications’ reported plans to sell information about their customers’ activities online raise several red flags. Simply providing a method for users to opt-out of the program is not the same has asking users to affirmatively agree to participate in the program. These privacy issues and how this venture is consistent with communications privacy laws must be addressed before the company moves forward with this plan.”

But it appears that Charter is just the latest and biggest ISP to jump into the web-surfing surveillance business with NebuAd and some online advertising firms.

Click on the links below to learn more.

“Every Click You Make” Washington Post
“Privacy Groups Ask for Online ‘Do Not Track’ List” Wired
Consumers Union Comments to Federal Trade Commission on Behavioral Advertising

We will be closely tracking the situation and blogging on any new developments. In the meantime, what do you think about the Charter/NebuAd plan?