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Net standards body rules in favor of consumer privacy

Ending a heated debate, the Internet Engineering Task Force says it won't take steps to make it easier for law enforcement to snoop on computer users.

Ending a heated debate, a standards body for the Net said it won't take steps to make it easier for law enforcement to snoop on computer users.

At its meeting in Washington yesterday, members of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) overwhelming agreed that standards for assigning Internet protocol numbers--which all devices need to hook into the Net--should not improve the ability of law enforcement to tap online communications, such as phone calls carried over the global network.

"Basically the consensus of the meeting was that the IETF should not put features into protocols that are solely for the reason to provide for wiretapping," said Scott Bradner, senior technical consultant at Harvard University, who is an area director for the IETF.

The IETF's stance comes at a time when online privacy is topping the minds of consumers and regulators.

This week alone, the Federal Trade Commission stepped up scrutiny of companies that track and build profiles on Net users. And Net media firm RealNetworks continued to battle bad publicity and lawsuits resulting from revelations that it had been assigning globally unique identification numbers to its popular music listening software without informing users.

The IETF debate focused on whether a federal law that requires the telephone infrastructure to support law enforcement wiretapping also applies to Net telephony. Consumer advocates had been hounding the IETF for the past month regarding the privacy implications of building backdoors into Net protocols for government agents.

"We believe that such a development would harm network security, result in more illegal activities, diminish users' privacy, stifle innovation, and impose significant costs on developers of communications," privacy groups and security technology makers stated in an open letter to the IETF this week. "At the same time, it is likely that Internet surveillance protocols would provide little or no real benefit for law enforcement."