Yesterday's hearings before Rep. Ed Markey's (D-MA) House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet reminded those concerned about Internet privacy and free speech that there are a number of clear and present dangers coming from several different sources, both private and public.
At one point, the CEO of NebuAd, a company that wants to get to know you better through "deep packet inspection" of your Internet traffic, objected to one of Chairman Markey's questions, claiming that it was the equivalent of "Have you stopped beating your wife recently?"
No, no, no, it's 'Have you stopped beating the consumer?' is the question.
The process of "deep packet inspection" allows the "inspector" to observe and record the details of the packet originator's web activity, including sites visited, links clicked, even keystrokes. It requires that the packets be intercepted somewhere along their route, and the most accessible point is a customer's Internet Service Provider (ISP).
Companies like NebuAd in the U.S. and Phorm in the U.K. are busy making deals with ISPs like Comcast, Verizon, and Charter in the U.S. and British Telecom and Virgin in the UK so that they can deeply inspect your packets, collect and collate the data on your browsing activity, and then sell it to the highest bidder, with a share going to the ISPs, of course.
Some of the Internet's "founders" find the prospect of such massive data gathering to be terrifying. At yesterday's hearings, David Reed of M.I.T. likened activities of NebuAd and their ISP partners to a mailman who opens everyone's mail before delivering it. Tim Berners-Lee said of his data:
It's mine - you can't have it. If you want to use it for something, then you have to negotiate with me. I have to agree, I have to understand what I'm getting in return.
Some argue that what NebuAd and Phorm are doing amounts to a prosecutable violation of existing wiretapping laws.
For their part, the ISPs made their defense at the hearing by attacking Net Neutrality and pointing the finger at other data collectors/privacy violators. Scott Cleland of Precursor, a consultant group lobbying for ISPs and against net neutrality, said that:
[Google is] the worst privacy offender on the Internet.
He called them "J. Edgar Google."
Why should you care what NebuAd or Google do? Tim Berners-Lee, often considered the "inventor" of the \Web, put it this way:
I want to know if I look up a whole lot of books about some form of cancer, that it's not going to get to my insurance company and I'm going to find my insurance premium is going to go up by 5% because they've figured out [why] I'm looking at those books.
(5%?!? Well, he's British. In the U. S., you're cancelled, baby.)
If NebuAd is collecting it, you can be sure that everyone from your health insurance company to your boss will be buying it. And you can bet that the FBI, CIA and NSA won't even have to pay for it.
Markey has been out in front on this issue and deserves your encouragement:
Chairman Ed Markey
House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and Internet