While House leaders were rallying for votes near the end of July to resolve the nation’s risk of defaulting, a House panel passed H.R. 1981, the “Protecting Children from Internet Pornographers Act of 2011″ with very little media coverage.
The bill calls for Internet providers to save their customers web activity for a period of 12 months and removes the need for federal officials to seek a warrant when obtaining this information.
What does this mean for the average American?
Your credit card information, browsing habits and anything typed online will be saved in case it is ever needed or wanted for a federal investigation.
For many news sources, the obvious question raised by this legislation is whether or not the bill commits an invasion of privacy, to which most reporters, most notably the often recited Aug. 1 piece by “The Atlantic,” come to the same conclusion: Yes.
The second dilemma is the age-old question: Do the ends justify the means? Certainly. No one is going to object protecting children from pornography, but just how much will this bill do to counter pedophilia?
Critics say not much. Of over 100,000 pedophilia-related tips received each year, the justice department only has the resources to investigate a small minority of these. Thus, this legislation doesn’t seem to be instigated by those involved in fighting pornography, but those who could practically gain ground by the availability of data.
This begs the question: what is the bill really about? Is it really about protecting children from would-be pedophiles?
If this is the case, why is it that it took just a few weeks of lobbying by top Internet providers such as Verizon and AT&T before an exemption was written to exclude wireless providers? Nor will data be retained from free WiFi hotspots, such as those that can be found at coffee shops like Starbucks or the public library.
Thus, the data retained would not be for just a fraction of Internet users who also engage in child pornography, but an even smaller percentage of that pool: those criminals oblivious enough to not just stroll down to Jamba Juice for the free WiFi or pull out their Blackberry.
Unfortunately, depravity doesn’t necessarily go hand-in-hand with a lack of common sense. Those knowingly engaging in criminal activity are more likely to track their steps, thus it’s the consumer who doesn’t think twice about their online activity: those putting their credit card into a field to renew a magazine subscription, a college student researching terrorism for a school project, or a music fan streaming a video from YouTube that are really at risk.
Which brings us back to the original question proposed in this editorial: What is this bill really about?
The leading proponent for the bill, Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, does not have a history of legislation regarding sex crimes, but this is not the first time he’s been involved in legislation regarding Intellectual Property crimes. The congressman worked in 2006 on the Intellectual Property Protection Act which would have given federal officers much more leverage when trying to acquire data needed to prosecute intellectual-property theft.
The interesting comparison between Lamar’s 2006 legislation and the “Protecting Children from Internet Pornographers Act of 2011” is that the new bill does everything the Intellectual Property Protection Act would have done with a slightly more marketable name: one that sounds less like the “Digital Millennium Copyright Act” and more like a nice honest attempt at protecting the youth of America.
It all sounds a bit like asking mom to stay the night at Johnny’s house and after receiving a negative response amending the request to include “to work on our Biology midterm.”
Most technology columnists have caught on to the fact that an obvious benefactor of this bill are organizations like the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), which have already taken aggressive action against consumers who can easily be implicated by their Internet usage. Whether this is the intention or not, there is no doubt that prosecuting digital copyright with far less red tape will be an obvious byproduct of making online data available to whomever asks for it.
And do these organizations really need more power? Six years after being slapped with a lawsuit by the RIAA for 24 shared songs over Kazaa, Jammie Thomas-Rasset just finished her third appeal in July of this year in which a jury found her liable for $1.9 million in statutory damages. The judge found the ruling “wholly disproportioned to the offense and obviously unreasonable” and reduced her fees to $54,000.
Thomas-Rasset is the perfect example of the person who doesn’t know they’re a criminal. A pedophile may have the foresight to not work from their personal computer, but file sharing has become so ubiquitous that many Americans don’t stop to think twice about which major corporations are tracking how many times they listen to “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
Now, of course, from the perspective of aspiring artists, its counter-intuitive to defend copyright violators, but the principle of a large percentage of Americans who don’t think twice about their activity online is important to notice. We learn in workshops and new media lectures not to post implicating information on Facebook or Twitter, because who knows who will see it, but after the passage of a bill such as this one, even the information we don’t put in the public domain will be accessible without a court-ordered warrant. Authorities just have to ask.
If an entire bill is being misrepresented how can we trust the security of our information? And does making this information easily accessible promote a greater sense of security for Americans?