I was recently asked, in the context of the ongoing Phorm debacle, and with other interested parties, to meet with members of the UK government and discuss deep packet inspection technologies, and their impact on the web. I’m still organizing my thoughts on the subject – I’ve put some here, but I’d love to know where else you think I should look to ensure I have considered the relevant angles.
Phorm‘s technology hooks in at the ISP level, watches and logs user traffic, and uses it to assemble a comprehensive profile for targeting advertising. While an opt-out mechanism was provided, many users have complained that there was no notice, or that it was insufficiently clear what was going on. NebuAd, another company with a similar product, has apparently used its position at the ISP level to not only observe, but also to inject content into the pages before they reached the user. It’s hard to get unbiased information here, but this is what I understand of the situation.
1. Deep packet inspection, in the general case, is a neutral technology. Some technologies are malicious by design (virus code, for instance), but I think DPI has as many positive uses as negative. DPI can let an ISP make better quality of service decisions, and can be done with the full knowledge and support of its users. I don’t think DPI, as a technology, should be treated as insidious.
2. Using deep packet inspection to assemble comprehensive browsing profiles of users without explicit opt-in is substantially more questionable. My browsing history and habits are things I consider private in aggregate, even though any single visit is obviously visible to the site I’m browsing.
It’s possible that I will choose to allow this surveillance in exchange for other things I value, but it must be a deliberate exchange. I would want to have that choice in an explicit way, and not to be opted in by default, even for aggregate data. Moreover, given the complexity of this technology, I would want a great deal of care to go into the quality of the explanation. Explaining this well to non-technical users might be so difficult as to be impossible, which is why it’s so important that it be opt-in.
3. Using deep packet inspection in conjunction with software that modifies the resultant pages to include, for instance, extra advertising content, is profoundly offensive and undermines the web. The content provider and the user have a reasonable expectation that no one else is modifying the content, and a typical user should not be expected to understand the mechanics of the web sufficiently to be able to anticipate such modifications.
People trust their ISPs with a huge amount of very personal data. It’s fine to say that customers should vote with their feet if their ISP is breaking that trust, but in many areas, the list of available ISPs is small, and so the need for prudence on the part of ISPs is large.
That’s what I’m thinking so far, what am I missing?