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Attorney general to talk data retention with new Congress

Alberto Gonzales says it's critical to ensure that law enforcement is able to get its hands on subscriber data from ISPs.

WASHINGTON--The Bush administration plans to approach Congress again this year about the possibility of new rules requiring Internet service providers to retain information about their subscribers for a certain period of time.

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said Thursday that he is continuing to explore such legislation, pertaining not to "data retained by government, but (to) data retained by ISPs that could be accessed with a court order."

"I would like to have a discussion with the Congress about that," he said at a broader oversight hearing convened Thursday by the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee.

As first reported by CNET in June 2005, U.S. Department of Justice officials began quietly shopping around the controversial policy move, akin to a set of requirements the European Union has already enacted.

Their intentions grew increasingly public last year. The attorney general suggested "reasonable" data retention is necessary to help investigators of online sex crimes, and members of Congress and state attorneys general voiced support for legislation mandating the practice.

One of the main proponents of such legislation last year was Rep. Diana Degette, a Colorado Democrat. A DeGette aide said Thursday that his boss "continues to look at this issue and will advance legislation this year," but a timetable for those efforts and legislative language haven't yet been decided.

Privacy advocates have long resisted mandatory data retention requirements because they allow police to obtain records of e-mail chatter, Web browsing history or chat-room activity that normally would have been discarded after a few months--or in some cases, never kept at all.

Some say that police can already get ample access to the data they need through a federally mandated process called data preservation, which requires Internet service providers to retain any "record" in their possession for 90 days "upon the request of a governmental entity."

Pointing to private meetings last year with ISPs, privacy groups and victims groups, Gonzales said he was aware that many ISPs already retain data for business purposes and are "great partners to the law enforcement community."

"However, for those few cases where we need the information, the question is, how do we maintain that evidence?" he asked.

Gonzales' remarks came in response to questioning from Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican, about what the department planned to do about child exploitation on the Internet. A Hatch aide told CNET that the senator has "no current plans" to draft such legislation.

Hatch also asked whether Gonzales would consider establishing a new commission to study obscenity and "make recommendations with a particular focus on the Internet," an idea raised last summer by fellow Utah Republican Bob Bennett.

"I'm willing to sit down with you and get your views about it," the attorney general replied.

CNET's Declan McCullagh contributed to this report.