Consumer Watchdog Will Track Standards Groups
Overlooked technical decisions often involve public, privacy issues, group says.


James Evans, IDG News Service
Thursday, April 12, 2001

A consumer advocacy group that has championed free speech and privacy online is trying to raise public interest in the Internet's technical development.

The Center for Democracy and Technology has hired veteran attorney and technologist John Morris to lead a new project promoting public involvement in the Net's development.

Morris was lead counsel in the U.S. Supreme Court case that struck down the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which sought to protect children from certain online content but was deemed too broad.

In his new role, he will identify Internet standards in development that have public interest implications; raise public involvement; and create a network of advocates, academics, and technologists to lobby or testify when needed.

Morris will focus a portion of his energies on monitoring the standards development coming from the Internet Engineering Task Force and the World Wide Web Consortium, according to CDT representatives.

"More and more of these groups are hitting on issues that have real effects on the public at large," says Alan Davidson, the CDT's associate director.

Techies Design Tracking Tools

One example is IETF's focus on standards for Internet Protocol telephony about 18 months ago, Davidson says. The IETF considered and rejected putting wiretapping capabilities into the standard, he notes. That technical discussion possessed obvious privacy implications, he says.

And about a year ago, when the IETF considered revisions to the specification for IP addresses, some suggested basing the addresses on the unique number on a PC's Ethernet card, Davidson says.

"Suddenly, you have one number that follows you everywhere on the Internet," he says. "It raises the possibility of a global unique identifier on the Internet."

It's similar to the approach of cookies, another consumer concern, Davidson notes. Cookies are files that store information about you and your Web-browsing patterns. They can be used to make it easier to log into a Web site you visit frequently, or they can surreptitiously track your online activity.

"It has big privacy consequences," Davidson says.

The CDT expects the project will primarily involve research initially. Then, the organization plans to issue periodic reports on standards development issues and their impact on the public, he says.

Morris has previously worked for the CDT as a director of the organization's Broadband Access Project, which assessed legal, policy, and factual issues surrounding the development of broadband Internet technologies.

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