Key lawmaker wants ISPs to get customer approval before tracking their Web activities

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UPDATED: See video of Rep. Edward J. Markey discussing ISP snooping.

... the content of online communications, such as specific websites a person visited. Deep-packet inspection has important uses, including law enforcement surveillance and stopping computer viruses. But privacy advocates said allowing ISPs to use it to deliver targeted advertisements raised major concerns, and also probably violated federal and state wiretapping laws.


Those concerns were echoed by Markey and others on his subcommittee, which specifically examined the issue at today’s hearing. Unlike a congressional hearing on the same topic last week, during which senators struggled to understand the technology and offered no policy proposals, most of the House lawmakers were up to speed on the issue -- and clear on their view of its implications.

‘The fact that I have to take affirmative action so that I can stop you from making money from my transactions on the Internet seems sort of backwards,’ said Rep. Greg Walden, a Republican from Oregon.

Dykes was on the defensive, particularly as Markey bore in on the company’s policies for informing consumers about the service. Here’s an example:

Markey: Do you support a policy saying the consumer must say, ‘Yes,’ before you’re allowed to roam through their personal data and turn it into an information product which is then sold to other companies? Yes or no to that question. Dykes: Mr. Chairman, I think you’re forcing me into one of those have-you-stopped-beating-your-wife [questions].Markey: No no no no no no. Have you stopped beating the consumer is the question.

(For an audio clip of the back-and-forth between Markey and Dykes, which is entertaining as well as interesting, click here.)

Dykes said his company develops anonymous profiles of Web users in ‘certain innocuous categories’ such as travel. The company stays away from sensitive information such as medical issues. He warned that although some people might wish that the delivery of information across the Web was like the post office delivering mail, it is in fact a commercial enterprise supported by advertising.


‘To adopt an across-the-board opt-in rule would potentially reduce the value of the advertising across the Internet, so I think major harm could be incurred that way,’ Dykes said.

But Markey promised to remain vigilant on the issue and highlight any attempts by ISPs to use deep-packet inspection as he works on privacy legislation. Markey sent a letter last week to Kansas-based ISP Embarq that also was signed by Reps. John Dingell, the Michigan Democrat who heads the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and Joe Barton of Texas, the top Republican on the committee.

Markey said the issue goes to the heart of the right to privacy.

‘It should be your right as an American citizen not to let people inside your mail, inside your packages, inside your packets,’ he said.

-- Jim Puzzanghera

Puzzanghera, a Times staff writer, covers tech and media policy from Washington.