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helmet-kid5Two congressmen have proposed a bill that would require ISPs, businesses, and individuals to maintain all users’ Internet-usage records for two years. Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) and Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX), presented identical bills– S.436 in the Senate and H.R.1076 in the House– in order to aid the fight against child pornography. Presumably, keeping track of such massive records and creating criminal sanctions for those in knowing possession will bring kiddie porn to its knees and potentially help to identify child victims.

There’s even a catchy name for the bill. It’s called the Internet Stopping Adults Facilitating the Exploitation of Today’s Youth Act of 2009– or, less cumbersomely, the Internet SAFETY Act. Such witticism. It almost causes one to stop and wonder how long it took to come up with such a clever acronym. However, don’t give absolute credit to the Republicans for this brainstorm– Cornyn and Smith are simply piggybacking onto a bill proposed by the Democrats three years ago.

It is uncertain how maintaining this data will provide an effective solution to the problem of child pornography. Interestingly, the bill even lacks a definition for what is considered to be “child pornography,” making the category overly broad and susceptible to subjective interpretation. In addition, the definition of what constitutes an ISP is also overly broad, leaving Wi-Fi hot spot providers just as susceptible as commercial ISPs.

Equally disturbing are the Act’s overly broad record-keeping requirements. These requirements could lead to fewer businesses– such as coffee shops, airports, and even public libraries– offering free Internet to their customers.

Economically speaking, this Act might prompt its own stimulus bill. Keeping the required amount of data backed up and warehoused for such long periods is an enormous burden on ISPs, who in turn could turn those costs over to users. Free Internet just might become a thing of the past.

It is also uncertain if the bill would require private individuals to keep such records when they give visitors access to their home Internet. Furthermore, what of Skype and Vonage customers? This bill has the potential to bleed into personal phone conversations, and it’s strangely reminiscent of wiretapping, which is already a controversial issue.

Yet for all the concern about maintaining these records, the bill fails to mention any sanctions for ISPs failing to maintain records over the statutory period. The only sanctions provided are for ISPs or email providers that knowingly facilitate access to child pornography. However, this too presents a host of concerns. It opens the door for ISPs to potentially begin monitoring personal emails, which in turn would open a Pandora’s box of First Amendment and privacy concerns. The large problem looming behind the bill is that all that data is just one subpoena away from practically anyone. If someone makes an anonymous statement, then all of his web surfing activity could potentially be put on display. Such a possibility has the potential for a chilling effect on free speech.

In addition, the potential for identity theft is ripe if ISPs are required to keep records for such a long period of time. Identity theft and system hacking is already a rampant problem. For example, the University of Florida recently announced that its records had been hacked, leading to a breach of personal data. If the SAFETY Act passes, this problem will continue to multiply.

There’s really not a lot of safety at work in the Internet SAFETY Act. Instead, there is a great deal of vagueness and overbreadth, coupled with some dangerous implications for privacy and personal safety. Congress would be well-advised to hold back on those acronyms and think this thing through. At this stage of legislative drafting, Cornyn and Smith’s SAFETY Act might just act as a warning to Seek Asylum From Every Totalitarian Yokel seeking to invade our privacy.

— Abbey Morrow

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One Response to Congress Doing A Safety Dance Around Privacy

  1. hb says:

    I’m sorry…I’m stopped reading right after “…Two congressmen have proposed a bill…”

    Modern history has taught us that any story in the media that begins with those EXACT words can only lead to catastrophe.

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