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MPs have today launched an investigation into the use of snooping technology by ISPs which allows them to profile customers for advertisers and throttle or block specific types of traffic.

An inquiry by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Communication will examine issues such as the emergence of Phorm's profiling system, and the restriction of bandwidth available to specific applications such as BitTorrent. Both activities are reliant on Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) technology.

"Now the Internet is part of daily life, concerns are increasingly raised about a wide range of online privacy issues," the group said in a background statement.

"Should there be changes to individual behaviour? Should companies be pressed to prioritise privacy issues? Or is there a need for specific regulations that go beyond mere 'data protection' and address privacy directly?"

The inquiry will also consider the impact of DPI technology on ISPs' "mere conduit" protection from liability for illegal traffic such as child pornography and copyright-infringing filesharing.

Child protection charities recently called on the government to force small ISPs to implement the Internet Watch Foundation's blocklist against indecent images of children. Some rights holders have meanwhile campaigned for ISPs to monitor and block music and video transferred illegally over peer-to-peer networks.

The informal cross-party group of MPs and Lords will also consider calls for ISPs to do more to block spam and botnets.

"Opinions differ very widely as to which of these activities should be forbidden, which should be insisted upon, which raise insurmountable privacy issues, and which should be left to the marketplace to determine whether the idea is viable," the group wrote.

"What aspects of network neutrality actually matter in the UK and do consumers need new laws to protect them?"

The government's recently-published report on Digital Britain dismissed the notion of network neutrality. Some UK ISPs have interfered with internet traffic using DPI equipment for several years.

Controversies over filesharing and ISP-level targeted advertising in the last 18 months, however, have gradually driven ISPs' control over internet traffic up the politcal agenda.

The group, chaired by Labour MPs John Robertson and Derek Wyatt, has called for submissions on five questions around the subject (below). It will hold evidence sessions in June, with a final report due in Autumn. Details of how to respond are here. ®

Bootnote

Those inquiry questions in full:

  • Can we distinguish circumstances when ISPs should be forced to act to deal with some type of bad traffic? When should we insist that ISPs should not be forced into dealing with a problem, and that the solution must be found elsewhere?
  • Should the Government be intervening over behavioural advertising services, either to encourage or discourage their deployment; or is this entirely a matter for individual users, ISPs and websites?
  • Is there a need for new initiatives to deal with online privacy, and if so, what should be done?
  • Is the current global approach to dealing with child sexual abuse images working effectively? If not, then how should it be improved?
  • Who should be paying for the transmission of Internet traffic? Would it be appropriate to enshrine any of the various notions of Network Neutrality in statute?

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