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DSL subscribers see privacy disappear

After subscribing to a digital subscriber line service, a systems administrator found his wife's name, his home address and their computer's Web address all publicly listed online.

When Dave Jackson, a San Francisco area systems administrator, signed up for high-speed Internet service, he didn't intend to announce it to the world.

But not long after subscribing to SBC Communications' digital subscriber line (DSL) service, he found his wife's name, his home address and their computer's Web address all publicly listed online.

Whoever was responsible, it was a huge privacy violation, and not one that he had approved in any way, he claims. The information would allow anyone who operated a Web site he visited, or who communicated with one of his family members through chat programs or the popular Napster MP3 swapping program, to trace his family directly to their house.

"This isn't something people chose," Jackson said. "A lot of people are running these systems from their home, but don't want to have their home addresses displayed."

The privacy problem stems not from SBC itself, but from the policies of an obscure agency responsible for the Internet address system, and its scramble to keep up with the new high-speed Net home market. It's now changing those policies, as a reflection of the changing Net marketplace.

The issue highlights another round of Internet growing pains, as systems once viewed as industrial-strength Net tools make their way into small businesses and homes. Just as the Web itself had to change as it evolved from a meeting place for academics into a commercial powerhouse, the Net is now having to adapt to ordinary people operating Web servers, always-on connections, and home networks.

Jackson's particular case revolves around the registration of "IP addresses"--the string of numbers that identifies computers connected to the Web to the rest of the world network.

Because these numbers are a relatively scarce resource, the nonprofit agency that keeps track of the numbering system has always required that anyone registering five or more addresses submit a home address.

In the past, this rule has largely applied solely to businesses or universities or other large organizations with many computers. But that's changing as consumers like Jackson sign up for high-speed Internet services, such as SBC's top-level DSL offering.

SBC did not comment on the issue.

American Registry for Internet Numbers (ARIN) president Kim Hubbard said today that the agency has received other complaints on the issue in recent months, and recently has decided to change their policy.

That means that people signing up for DSL or other services won't have to put their addresses on the open Net anymore. The policy change will happen officially in April, but the agency is unofficially telling some Internet service providers and telephone companies to quit signing up customers using their home addresses, she added.

"As soon as someone came and said this is what's happening, we realized it was an issue," Hubbard said. "It's not fair for people to have their home numbers online."