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The Rise and Fall of Invasive ISP Surveillance

Paul Ohm

University of Colorado Law School

August 30, 2008

University of Illinois Law Review, 2009
U of Colorado Law Legal Studies Research Paper No. 08-22

Nothing in society poses as grave a threat to privacy as the Internet Service Provider (ISP). ISPs carry their users' conversations, secrets, relationships, acts, and omissions. Until the very recent past, they had left most of these alone because they had lacked the tools to spy invasively, but with recent advances in eavesdropping technology, they can now spy on people in unprecedented ways. Meanwhile, advertisers and copyright owners have been tempting them to put their users' secrets up for sale, and judging from a recent flurry of reports, ISPs are giving in to the temptation and experimenting with new forms of spying. This is only the leading edge of a coming storm of unprecedented and invasive ISP surveillance.

This Article proposes an innovative new theory of communications privacy to help policymakers strike the proper balance between user privacy and ISP need. We cannot simply ban aggressive monitoring, because ISPs have legitimate reasons for scrutinizing communications on an Internet teeming with threats. Using this new theory, policymakers will be able to distinguish between an ISP's legitimate needs and mere desires.

In addition, this Article injects privacy into the network neutrality debate - a debate about who gets to control innovation on the Internet. Despite the thousands of pages that have already been written about the topic, nobody has recognized that we already enjoy mandatory network neutrality in the form of expansive wiretapping laws. The recognition of this idea will flip the status quo and reinvigorate a stagnant debate by introducing privacy and personal autonomy into a discussion that has only ever been about economics and innovation.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 83

Keywords: privacy, Internet, cyberlaw, ISP, wiretap, charter, comcast, nebuad, phorm, network neutrality

JEL Classification: K2, K29, K4, K41, K42

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Date posted: August 31, 2008 ; Last revised: December 23, 2013

Suggested Citation

Ohm, Paul, The Rise and Fall of Invasive ISP Surveillance (August 30, 2008). University of Illinois Law Review, 2009; U of Colorado Law Legal Studies Research Paper No. 08-22. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1261344

Contact Information

Paul Ohm (Contact Author)
University of Colorado Law School ( email )
401 UCB
Boulder, CO 80309
United States
303-492-0384 (Phone)
303-492-1200 (Fax)

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