Could this legislation kill the Internet?

I’ve noticed two things when studying elected officials. First, many seem to know almost nothing about technology. Second, when you say the words “protecting children” they tend to turn their brains off and support whatever comes next.

The Atlantic is up in arms over a bill before Congress, titled the Protecting Children From Internet Pornographers Act of 2011, that would require Internet service providers to capture credit card data, bank statements, IP information and search history from every user and keep it on hand for 18 months.

The House bill, H.R. 1981 (oh, it was so close to being H.R. 1984) does note that ISPs should store that information “in a safe place,” which by golly makes me feel a lot better. As long as they’re keeping an eye on my bank statements, credit card information and personal data that they’ve stolen from me, then it makes everything OK, right?

Wrong.

Where do I start with what’s bad about this ridiculous piece of legislation? For one, it would do almost nothing to combat child pornography. What it would do is make people not want to use the Internet to buy things from The Gap, Dell Online or Pizzahut.com. It’s the equivalent of saying that Verizon needs to listen in on every phone call over its network and keep data the government feels might one day be used to investigate a future crime.

Would you want to talk on a line that you know a private company, under the guise of a government mandate, is monitoring? Would you even want such a phone in your home?

Oh, and one other interesting tidbit: Under the bill, the government would not need any warrant to look at all your data. It could just ask the ISP to hand it over. It doesn't even have to say please. My guess is that some overzealous county sheriff will simply get all the data from everyone living “in his territory” and pore through it like an electronic voyeur, under the premise that some crime must be under way somewhere. 

Besides killing Internet commerce, something our struggling economy does not need right now, my biggest concern is the safety of the data captured by ISPs. Private companies are notoriously bad at keeping personal data safe. One only needs look as far as the Sony PlayStation hacks to see that this is true. And Comcast and other big ISPs have faced similar problems. If any company collects valuable financial data about its customers, it becomes a target and so do its customers. And if this new bill becomes law, there will be a lot of new targets out there — as in, every one of us.

The really stupid thing about this bill is that it likely will do nothing to stop child pornographers. How could it? It would simply lump pornographers’ data into the pile of millions and millions of other Internet users, if the perverts were stupid enough to use their home address. There are a lot of wireless hot spots at places like McDonald’s and Starbucks, and none of them are covered by the bill. Every arrest for kiddie porn that I’ve ever heard about involved the seizing of the criminal’s computer, and the evidence is right there on the hard drive. Internet search records and credit card data don’t enter into it.

Look, I understand the need to protect children, but every few years some legislator who does not know the difference between a chainsaw and the Internet tries to use a sledge hammer approach to protect kids. Last time around, it was called the Child Online Protection Act, which was finally blocked by the Supreme Court. This bill is even more odious than that one.

The fact that H.R. 1981 cleared its committee is troubling, but at least it has not come up for a full vote yet. Though I put little faith in the current House of Representatives to make the right decision, my hope is that cooler heads will prevail and H.R. 1981 will act like an old soldier and just fade away. Otherwise, we are looking at the next great battle for the Internet, a fight we can’t afford to lose.

 

About the Author

John Breeden II is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

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