Big Brother Is Always About Protecting the Children
New Legislation Threatens the Privacy and Expression Rights of All American Internet Users
Legislation with massive privacy implications frequently go by misnomers (anyone remember the USA PATRIOT Act?) but legislation recently approved 19-10 in the House Judiciary Committee would give government unprecedented access to the Internet activities of every user in the United States. The bill, dubbed “the Protecting Children from Internet Pornographers Act of 2011” would mandate that Internet service providers maintain a record tied to your name, address, credit card number, and IP addresses of everything you do on the Internet every year, and give the government access to the data without a warrant.
No sane person is against protecting children from predators and clearly no one wants to appear to be against protecting children from Internet pornographers—imagine the campaign ads: “Rep. So-and-so voted against protecting children from Internet pornographers.” I am not making light of this issue: Sexual predators and pedophiles are a real threat to the safety of our youth and I fully support efforts to crack down on them. And we have the ability to find and prosecute them, as evidenced by the charges by the Department of Justice against 72 alleged members of an Internet child pornography ring last week. But this legislation feeds off of moral panic of this very real problem to go far beyond reasonable measures to solve it. If it were to become law, the bill would risk exposing millions of Americans to modern, technology-enhanced, McCarthy-style snooping, the results of which border on an Orwellian nightmare.
As the Internet has evolved to become one of the primary venues for self-expression, the place where individuals go to exercise their freedom of speech, technology has evolved with it to threaten that freedom. If the government has a carte blanche to dig through all records of speech, it is effectively stifled. Creating treasure troves of every citizen’s personal information and user activity and giving the government unfettered access to it, as mandated by this legislation, leaves Americans vulnerable to a wide variety of privacy invasions.
There is certainly a debate to be had about the role (and existence of) anonymity on the internet—Randi Zuckerberg, the soon-to-be-former marketing director for Facebook, recently suggested ending Internet anonymity as the only way to end cyberbullying. But there is a difference between an end to online anonymity in comment boards and on email for the purposes of personal accountability, and creating a database of all of your online activities, regardless of whether or not you are suspected of engaging in child Internet pornography. That’s right—this legislation, according to Conor Friedersdorf writing for The Atlantic:
… doesn’t require that someone be under investigation on child pornography charges in order for police to access their Internet history — being suspected of any crime is enough. (It may even be made available in civil matters like divorce trials or child custody battles.) Nor do police need probable cause to search this information.
The Big Brother comparisons may sound like an overreaction, and indeed, I am alarmed—but I am not alone: Friedersdorf suggests “The Encouragement of Blackmail by Law Enforcement Act” as an alternative name for the bill and legislators on both sides of the aisle have come out in vocal opposition to the bill. Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) called the bill an “unprecedented power grab by the federal government – it goes way beyond fighting child pornography,” and Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) noted the data retained “will be made available to law enforcement officers without a warrant or judicial oversight, and is a convenient way for law enforcement to get powers they couldn’t get in the Patriot Act.”
Consumer and privacy advocates have also mobilized in response: Electronic Privacy Information Center Director Marc Rotenberg testified against the legislation in committee, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation is running a letter-writing campaign urging members of Congress to stop the bill from going forward, as is Demand Progress, the advocacy organization founded by Aaron Swartz.
Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) was exactly right when he said, “The bill is mislabeled. This is not protecting children from Internet pornography. It’s creating a database for everybody in this country for a lot of other purposes.” Legislators have a responsibility to look past the title and assess the practical implications of legislation they support. In the case of the Protecting Children from Internet Pornographers Act of 2011, it is clear that those implications go well beyond the stated goal of protecting children; they threaten to undermine the fundamental civil liberties defining our society.
Andrea Peterson is the Assistant Editor for Online Outreach and Analytics at the Center for American Progress.
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