House Judiciary Committee Passes ISP Data Retention Bill

WASHINGTON, D.C.—H.R. 1981, a controversial bill that has prompted the Electronic Frontier Foundation and 29 other civil liberties and consumer advocacy groups to pen a collective letter to the U.S. House Judiciary Committee opposing its passage, was approved this afternoon by the committee in a 19-10 vote. A Senate version (S. 1308) was introduced June 30 by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah).

As reported previously by AVN, The Protecting Children From Internet Pornographers Act of 2011, which among other things mandates that ISPs retain subscribers' IP addresses for 18 months for the purpose of aiding law enforcement in the fight against child pornography, appeared to be in trouble when it was criticized by the original author of the Patriot Act, Rep James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis), who said, “This does not strike at the problem in an effective manner, and it runs roughshod over the privacy rights of people who use the Internet for thousands of lawful purposes.” He adding that it “ought to be defeated and put in the dustbin of history.”

Sensenbrenner was hardly alone in his criticism. According to EFF, “These [IP] addresses can be used to identify you personally online and, when the right information is stored, may be used to track what websites you visit and what content you post. When access to such valuable information is made readily available, the data becomes ripe for abuse by law enforcement officials. It is particularly troublesome because the laws designed to protect the private data of consumers from government access are insufficient and out-of-date—creating a perfect storm for government abuse.”

Committee member Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) during a debate before the vote referred to the bill as a "stalking horse for a massive expansion of federal power.”

And Greg Nojeim, senior counsel for the Center for Democracy and Technology, said, "This is China-style law enforcement, treating everyone as a potential suspect and requiring the collection of personal information just in case it might later be useful to the government.”

Unfortunately, none of those arguments ultimately prevented the committee from approving H.R 1981 for consideration by the full House.

Of course, when it comes to sex the government has never had a problem lumping everyone into a one-size-fits-all, you-might-be-a-criminal box (i.e. potential overbreadth issues). The 2257 federal labeling and record keeping requirements, which force all producers and disseminators of adult content to keep records that show the age and identity of the performers being displayed, makes a similar assumption.

With respect to H.R. 1981, however, the group of impacted individuals has been expanded to include … well, everyone who surfs the internet, under the rubric of protection children. (What else?) With respect to either group—web surfers or adult content producers—the argument by supporters of the bill is the same as it always with bills that chip away at civil liberties and quaint notions of privacy: If you’re not doing anything wrong, you have nothing to worry about.

According to Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), who co-sponsored the measure with Florida Democrat Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, "Investigators need the assistance of ISPs to identify users and distributors of online child pornography. This bill ensures that the online footprints of predators are not erased."

In bypassing due process in favor of an expedited method for law enforcement to track who you are and where you go online, H.R. 1981 contains no provisions that ensure that child pornography will not be the only reasons why your records are not forked over by your service provider.

Interestingly, considering their traditional attitude against government intervention, remarks in support of the bill by Michael Powell, president of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, which represents ISPs such as Comcast Corp. and Time Warner Cable Inc., do little to assuage fears regarding this assault on anonymous web surfing.

But then, anonymity on the web is precisely what some lawmakers want to prevent as they pass ever-intrusive laws that turn the internet’s gate keepers into Big Brother’s little helpers. Similarly, corporations such as Comcast and Time Warner, which are not only ISPs but also significant content producers, have every reason to want to overlay a level of control onto the internet that will change its original premise (and promise) forever.

Hopefully, the Constitution will have something to say about that, assuming it is properly interpreted by the Supreme Court justices.