By Frederick Lane
April 24, 2009 2:19PM
The House Energy and Commerce Internet subcommittee is looking into Internet privacy issues and deep packet inspection by Internet service providers. Chairman Rick Boucher called for greater privacy protection. An industry advocate actually called inspections pro-consumer. Boucher called the potential of ISP snooping "frightening."
At a hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Internet subcommittee Thursday, Congress began the tricky business of trying to understand Internet privacy issues and launched another round of debates about legislation regulating the collection and handling of personal data online.
The specific focus of the subcommittee's hearing was the practice of deep packet inspection (DPI), a data-handling technique that allows Internet service providers and communication companies to look at the content of all traffic flowing through their servers.
ISPs argue that DPI is a valuable tool because it enables them to block illegal content flowing across the Internet, including copyrighted materials and contraband such as child pornography. One industry advocate -- National Cable & Telecommunications Association President -- went so far as to argue that DPI is actually a pro-consumer technology, enabling ISPs to better filter viruses and other threatening content.
DPI gained notoriety last year when it was revealed thatused the technique to throttle the flow of BitTorrent data across its networks. Other ISPs have suggested using DPI as a tool to prioritize traffic (perhaps based on a sliding fee scale), a technique that engineers argue is simply good network management.
Strong Privacy Concerns
But many worry that DPI can have profound privacy implications, since it enables ISPs to examine the content of all traffic, not merely that which is illegal or potentially damaging.
"DPI poses unique risks to individual privacy," said Leslie Harris, president and CEO of the Center for Democracy and Technology. "Moreover, once the technology is acquired for a legitimate purpose such as responding to network threats, it will be hard to draw the line at ever more intrusive uses as third parties approach the network operators with proposals to monetize Internet traffic and the government makes greater demands."