Senate Grapples With Web Privacy Issues

Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.) said yesterday's hearing emphasized
Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.) said yesterday's hearing emphasized "how little we do understand" about Internet advertising and consumers' privacy. (By Mark Wilson -- Getty Images)
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By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 10, 2008

Consumers worry about their Internet privacy. Politicians vow to investigate. And two of the nation's biggest tech companies, Google and Microsoft, support federal legislation for data collection.

So why isn't much happening?

One reason is that legislators find the subject kind of confusing.

At the end of a two-hour Senate committee hearing yesterday on Internet advertising and privacy, Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.), who led the discussion, said the affair had chiefly served to emphasize "how little we do understand."

Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.), remarked wryly that because of all the talk about "cookies" and other Web terms, he was going to have to "update my dictionary."

And Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) asked a question about Internet connections so muddled that apparently no one understood.

"I think I'm not entirely sure of what you are suggesting, senator," the witness answered.

"Nor am I," he said.

The Senate hearing had been called as fears grow that the massive volume of information that Internet companies are collecting about users is violating their privacy.

For years, individual Web sites have assembled profiles of users consisting of personal preferences and activities.

But as Web sites have increasingly been united in vast ad networks, the various profiles maintained by separate sites have combined to create more detailed and far-ranging portraits of users.

Over the past year, moreover, some Internet service providers have begun experimenting with a practice that would offer even more detailed portraits of individuals. The technology, known as "deep packet inspection," allows ISPs to peer into the stream of data coming from a person's Internet line, a practice critics liken to wiretapping.

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