Telecoms' Holy Grail of Internet Profits Is the Next Frontier in Corporate Spying
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You would think that AT&T, Verizon and Time Warner execs had turned a page and formed a new front in defense of your online rights.
Late last month, they lined up before the Senate to mouth principles that would, in their words, ensure that Internet "consumers have ultimate control over the use of their personal information and guards against privacy abuses."
The issue spins around the use of a content-filtering technology called "deep packet inspection" or DPI, which allows network managers to inspect, track and target user Internet content as our information passes along the Information Superhighway.
Headlines following the Senate hearing struck a reassuring note, declaring these companies were taking a stand with consumers and "keeping their distance" from DPI.
But we did our own packet inspection and found that the telcos' actions often speak louder than their testimony.
Breaking and Entering
DPI forms the cornerstone of plans to police the Internet and profit from Web content. Using DPI companies like AT&T, Verizon and Time Warner would be able to decide whether a packet can pass or be routed to a different lane on the Superhighway. It lets them pry open user's trunks, erect new tolls and sell off or bar privileged access based on what they find inside.
"Simply put, Deep Packet Inspection is the Internet equivalent of the postal service reading your mail," Public Knowledge founder Gigi Sohn said during the September hearing. "They might be reading your mail for any number of reasons, but the fact remains that your mail is being read by the very people whose job it is to deliver it."
The company's stated goal was to help the copyright cops in the recording and motion picture industry stop illegal sharing of music and movies. (This is why these same companies have also formed a bulwark against Net Neutrality rules that would prevent such snooping.)
But once the technology is in place, AT&T can use it to inspect so much more.
DPI is already being used by other governments, including China and Burma to prevent politically sensitive information from making it in or out of their countries.
AT&T could easily tweak this same technology to let Ma Bell peer into all of your Internet use.
And if history is any guide, the communications giant is not to be trusted with our most privileged information. Americans have already been subjected to the National Security Agency's domestic spying program courtesy of AT&T.
Verizon is similarly flirting with DPI -- and has a similar history of abuse.
"To be clear, Verizon has not used -- and does not use -- packet inspection technology to target advertising to customers," Thomas J. Tauke, Verizon's top lobbyist told worried senators during the September hearing. "And we have not deployed the technology in our wireline network for such purposes."
But note Tauke's careful parsing of terms: DPI is not being used by Verizon to target advertising, but the Verizon exec left the field open for other applications. "Packet inspection can be a helpful engineering tool to manage network traffic and enable online services and applications consumers may wish to use," he said.
Indeed, Verizon has reportedly been seeking technology vendors who can help it fulfill these gatekeeper ambitions.
But you won't hear that from the company's executives themselves.
Telcos Mum on Plans to Filter
According to an April report in the Washington Post , Verizon, AT&T and other providers were reluctant to reveal the extent of their Web filtering, but the companies that sell the technology -- companies such as NebuAd, Phorm and Front Porch -- were more forthcoming.
Front Porch collects detailed Web-use data from more than 100,000 U.S. customers through their service providers. At the time, NebuAd had agreements with providers covering 10 percent of U.S. broadband customers, chief executive Bob Dykes told the Post.
But what's good for their business is clearly bad for the public's Internet.
With billions of dollars at stake in controlling your online experience, it's little wonder that these companies see DPI as the Holy Grail of Internet profits.
It's also no surprise that they're having troubles telling us the whole truth about their plans to use it.
Timothy Karr is the author of MediaCitizen, a weblog about the future of America's media. He is the campaign director of Free Press. From September 2003 through February 2005, Karr was executive director of MediaChannel.org and Media for Democracy.