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Some of the largest ISPs in the United States have vowed not to monitor Internet users' activities without permission.
Representatives from Verizon, AT&T, and Time Warner Cable testified at a hearing this week and said their companies do not monitor user behavior in order to target them with custom advertisements. They said they would only monitor activity if users choose to opt in. The companies want other ISPs and search engines to follow suit.
Google has also indicated a willingness to allow consumers the choice to opt out of data collection.
Congress has been examining the issue and most ISPs prefer industry-wide standards over increased federal privacy laws. Several ISPs are working together to adopt self-regulatory guidelines. Although not all of those involved in drafting the guidelines have come forward, those who have said they hope to produce a code of conduct by next year.
The U.S. Senate Commerce Committee held a hearing on the issue this week, not long after members of the U.S. House of Representatives sent letters to ISPs saying they believed behavioral advertising could threaten consumer privacy.
The public interest advocacy group, Public Knowledge, is calling for legislation to protect consumer privacy. In testimony to the Senate Commerce Committee, Public Knowledge President and co-founder Gigi Sohn said that deep packet inspection (DPI) technology "raises grave privacy concerns."
"To put it simply, Deep Packet Inspection is the Internet equivalent of the postal service reading your mail," she said. "They might be reading your mail for any number of reasons, but the fact remains that your mail is being read by the people whose job it is to deliver it."
Sohn said that ISPs are increasingly reading users' e-mail and storing information for their own use.
"In some cases, ISPs are actually passing copies of the envelopes on to third parties who do the actual reading and use," she said. "In others, ISPs are using the contents to change the normal ways that the Internet works. And for the most part, customers are not aware that their ISPs are engaging in this behavior -- much like if the postal service were to open your letter, photocopy it, hand that copy to a third party and then re-seal the letter, so that you would never know it had even been opened in the first place."
She said any solutions should be comprehensive and ensure that "the basic principles of privacy protection are applied across the entire Internet ecosystem."