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White House undecided about data retention law

Despite Justice Department's enthusiasm, White House hasn't taken a position on whether a law is needed to force Internet providers to keep track of what their customers are doing.

SAN FRANCISCO--The Obama administration has not yet taken a position on whether a law is needed to force Internet providers to keep track of what their customers are doing, a White House official said.

During a briefing with reporters at the RSA Conference yesterday, CNET asked White House cybersecurity coordinator Howard Schmidt if there was an administration-wide position on the controversial proposal, which is backed by law enforcement but opposed by privacy advocates and industry representatives.

"No," Schmidt replied. "That's why we're having all these hearings."

The most recent in a series of those congressional hearings came last month, when the Justice Department called for a law making data retention mandatory, saying the current situation was "extremely harmful" and criminal investigations "are being frustrated." Some prominent House Republicans have agreed.

Schmidt referred additional questions to a White House spokesman, who did not respond to a request for elaboration.

The White House's Office of Management and Budget is in charge of ensuring that the administration speaks with one voice on a topic--the process is called "clearing"--which involves circulating a proposal to all relevant agencies in an effort to achieve consensus. OMB also ensures that the proposal is consistent with the president's agenda and doesn't interfere with other legislative priorities.

But because the administration apparently hasn't completed that process, even though data retention legislation was first introduced at least five years ago, it may indicate that the Justice Department's embrace of the idea lacks broader support.

For now, the scope of any mandatory data retention law remains hazy. It could mean forcing companies to store data for two years about what Internet addresses are assigned to which customers. (Comcast said in 2006 that it would be retaining those records for six months.)

Or it could be more intrusive, sweeping in online service providers, and involve keeping track of e-mail and instant-messaging correspondence and what Web pages users visit. Some Democratic politicians have previously called for data retention laws to extend to domain name registries and Web hosting companies and even social-networking sites. An FBI attorney said last year that the bureau supports storing Internet users' "origin and destination information," meaning logs of which Web sites are visited.