‘Protecting children’: New legislation threatens online privacy

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By Joshua Ostrer

With the well-publicized recent defeat of SOPA came a public outcry against Congressional moves against freedom on the internet. The latest example of this is The Protecting Children from Internet Pornographers Act, officially named H.R. 1981.

H.R. 1981 is actually introduced by the same man who introduced SOPA,  Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX). The bill requires ISPs (Internet Service Providers) like Verizon or Comcast to track data on all of its users.

In particular, your ISP will be responsible for storing all of your internet activity, your name, your address, your bank account numbers, your credit card numbers,and your IP addresses. Your internet provider is also required to store that information for 18 months following your latest internet activity.

The Act also does not require an individual to be under investigation of any kind before police look into an individual’s logged information. All that is required by the text of the bill, is that an individual be suspected of any crime whatsoever, before his or her information is accessed.

What’s particularly troubling about this provision is that it flies in the face of the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, which protects citizens from unreasonable search without a warrant issued on the basis of probable cause. H.R. 1981 replaces that requirement for probable cause with a much weaker standard of evidence that makes it much easier for the government to search your records.

In addition, H.R. 1981 dramatically increases the risks from hacking and online data leaks, since ISPs would have to maintain vast stores of personal infromation. Given the number of large technology companies that have fallen victim to hackers (Semantec is but the most recent example), it would only be a matter of time before complete customer data from a hacked ISP would be available to criminals online.

There is no shortage of opposition to H.R. 1981, with powerful Washington lobbyist groups such as The Electronic Frontier Foundation, The American Civil Liberties Union and The American Library Association all announcing their disapproval. Opposition to the bill has labeled H.R. 1981 as a complete violation of the personal liberties of those using the internet, having nothing to do with child pornography. Representative Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) was quoted as saying the bill should be renamed the “Keep Every American’s Digital Data for Submission to the Federal Government without a Warrant Act.”

Although the bill has sparked a great deal of controversy regarding the infringement of privacy of internet users, the bill does provide for much harsher penalties for those found guilty of possessing child pornography, imposing “a fine and/or prison term of up to 20 years for the possession of pornographic images of a child under the age of 12.”

An alternative has already been presented by Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), in the Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking Deterrence and Victims Support Act of 2011. Senator Wyden’s proposed bill does not require tracking of individual’s online or financial activity, in contrast to the extensive monitoring within H.R. 1981. Senator Wyden’s bill was actually introduced March 16, 2011, over two months before H.R. 1981, but only holds 12 co-sponsors in contrast to H.R. 1981’s 39 co-sponsors.

Although H.R. 1981 was introduced in the House of Representatives over eight months ago, the bill is only now receiving attention in the wake of the publicity attracted by SOPA and PIPA.

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