Government, Internet Firms In Talks Over Browsing Data

By Frank Ahrens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 3, 2006

Federal law enforcement officials tried to establish an open-minded tone in a meeting yesterday with big Internet companies over the controversial idea of disclosing the Web-browsing habits of customers to the government, according to attendees.

In late May, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales and FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III had told the companies -- Google Inc., Yahoo Inc., Microsoft Corp., AOL and others -- that the government wanted the companies to keep records of which Web sites were viewed by their customers, as a way to fight terrorism and child pornography.

Some in attendance at that meeting described the government's top lawmen as blunt and demanding in their approach.

Their proposal raised privacy concerns for consumers and worries about cost for the Internet service providers, which might be forced to keep years' worth of data that would fill storage systems.

Neither Gonzales nor Mueller was present yesterday, according to sources familiar with the meeting who spoke on condition of anonymity because the discussions are private and ongoing. Consequently, the meeting was less confrontational and more focused, they said.

"It was kicked off by clarifying: This is not about terrorism. It's specifically about child pornography and child exploitation," said one person familiar with the meeting. "It was much more of a dialogue" than last week's meeting, the source said.

The Justice Department and the FBI have assembled a working group of companies and technology trade groups to determine if the agencies will ask Congress for legislation requiring the companies to store customer data.

"The issue of data retention arose because the lack of available data has hampered our ability to conduct investigations into child exploitation and pornography," said Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse. "The same may be true in the context of terrorism cases, but the department's current focus was not prompted by a desire to access records related to terrorism."

Earlier this year, the Justice Department said, it subpoenaed an Internet service provider to hand over data related to the apparent uploading of 300 images of child pornography. The provider was unable to comply because it had not stored the data, even though the incident occurred three weeks earlier, the department said.

Roehrkasse said that if the department does ask Congress for such legislation, three stipulations will apply: The actual content that customers looked at on the Web will not be stored; all data will be stored by the companies, not the government; and the government will have access to the data only by current means, such as warrants and subpoenas.

Yesterday's meeting, which lasted about two hours at the Justice Department's headquarters, was attended by representatives from Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, AOL, Verizon Communications Inc., EarthLink Inc., AT&T Inc., Comcast Corp. and trade groups, such as the U.S. Internet Service Provider Association.

Currently, many child pornographers are arrested and convicted after referrals from Internet service providers. The companies do not turn over customer data immediately, as they are bound to protect customer privacy. But they refer potentially criminal behavior to law enforcement officials, who return to the ISP with a warrant requiring the customer data.

The concern of the big Internet companies is that the Justice Department and FBI want to significantly alter the process.

"We strongly support Attorney General Gonzales' interest in assuring that the Internet is safe for everyone, especially children and families," Microsoft said in a statement. "But data retention is a complicated issue with implications not only for efforts to combat child pornography but also for security, privacy, safety, and availability of low-cost or free Internet services."

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