By JR on Wednesday, February 01, 2012
Lovers of liberty have seemingly had a good bit to celebrate over the past two weeks.
First, there was an unprecedented outpouring of negative public sentiment about the Congressional bills SOPA (House) and PIPA (Senate); they are legislation that would have thrown a large governmental monkey wrench into the relatively smooth-running cogs of the Internet. Millions of Americans signed online petitions against the bills (I did) after seeing websites’ various protests. Google shrouded its search page in black; Wikipedia, and Reddit went dark entirely (although Wikipedia could be accessed if one read the information available via clicking the sole link on its protest page); Facebook and Twitter urged users to contact their representatives; and many other core Internet businesses also raised their voices in opposition.
Such was the outpouring of dissent that even Washington, D.C. had to listen. The bills, which a week earlier had seem assured of swift passage, suddenly turned to poison. Supporters, forced to concede that the public really was pissed off this time, fled. Leadership in both houses tabled the legislation, pending further review and revision.
But before we get too self-congratulatory, however, it's wise to note that this victory dish is probably best enjoyed with a serving of caution.
In addition to SOPA/PIPA, there is PCIP. SOPA/PIPA were about shutting down Internet sites that the federal government deems offensive. PCIP is about gathering information.
As is so often the case with "well-meaning" legislation, the Protecting Children from Internet Pornographers Act of 2011 (H.R. 1981, or PCIP) is allegedly aimed at something about which all agree. Nobody argues against shielding kids from pornographers.
Not that the problem addressed isn't real. The Internet has proven to be a fertile stalking ground for sexual predators. As a society, we have already agreed to a certain level of cyber-entrapment, allowing police to run online sting operations against those who are actively targeting kids. If that catches some innocent people in the net, so be it. The public majority is willing to accept such collateral damage so long as the real bad guys are found and put away.
And yes, H.R. 1981 also contains some non-controversial provisions. Stricter punishment for interstate commerce transactions that promote child porn? Sure. Bolstering laws to protect child witnesses? No problem.
But, as always, the details are alive with devils. PCIP is also about pre-crimes – i.e., it entails gathering evidence before any crime is committed… perhaps even before said crime is contemplated. The goal is that, in the event of an arrest, supporting online records can quickly and easily be subpoenaed.
In order to accomplish that, everyone must be considered a potential criminal. Everyone.
What PCIP will mandate is that Internet providers keep detailed records about each one of us, including: name, address, bank account numbers, credit card numbers, all Internet activity for the previous 12 months (something sure to be extended after the first successful busts), and any IP addresses assigned to you – without a search warrant, court order, or even the slightest suspicion of criminal activity.
In other words, the government is proposing to expand the ranks of de facto private-sector cops, the same way that banks are now forced to report any "suspicious financial activity." The legislation would enlist – nay, require – ISPs to compile detailed dossiers on every citizen, and to have them readily accessible for whatever "crime-fighting" or other purposes authorities want them. This thereby saves federal government officials the trouble and expense of doing it themselves. It's breathtaking. You almost have to admire the elegance of their solution to the universal 'Net surveillance problem that's vexed them for some time.
No wonder the Electronic Frontier Foundation has scornfully tabbed this the "Data Retention Bill," warning that the stored data "could become available to civil litigants in private lawsuits – whether it's the RIAA trying to identify downloaders, a company trying to uncover and retaliate against an anonymous critic, or a divorce lawyer looking for dirty laundry." And in a grotesque illustration of the law of unintended consequences, the EFF adds: "These databases would also be a new and valuable target for black hat hackers, be they criminals trying to steal identities or foreign governments trying to unmask anonymous dissidents."
H.R. 1981 sailed through the House Judiciary Committee in late July of last year but is yet to be voted on (although it was slated for "expedited consideration" in mid-December). Will it provoke the kind of public outcry directed against SOPA? Don't count on it. What politician in his or her right mind would dare oppose legislation that "protects kids from pornographers?"