RealTime IT News

Privacy Groups Blast ISP Data-Retention Bill

Privacy advocates are lashing out at a renewed effort by lawmakers to impose requirements on ISPs and wireless network operators to keep records about the identities of Internet users. The new bills are an effort to combat child pornography and other types of exploitation.

Under the law, network operators would have to retain the network addresses assigned to users for a minimum of two years, information which law enforcement could use to track down predators.

But the broad language of the bill, which would apply to any "provider of an electronic communication service," could mean that coffee shops, airport lounges and individual households would be required to keep detailed records.

For Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, that's a self-defeating proposition.

"The proposal is both terrible and impractical," Rotenberg told InternetNews.com. "It exposes Internet users to unnecessary risks, including identity theft, fraud and civil liability, and it creates record-keeping requirements that could never be enforced."

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights group that, among other battles, has been waging a legal fight against the government to halt its domestic surveillance program, leveled a similar criticism.

"These data retention proposals unnecessarily threaten the privacy and anonymous speech rights of every law-abiding internet user," EFF Senior Attorney Kevin Bankston told InternetNews.com. The law would "create vast new troves of data vulnerable not only to government overreaching but also to any civil litigant wielding a subpoena," he added.

Sen. John Cornyn and Rep. Lamar Smith, both Texas Republicans, announced the legislation at a press conference Thursday with Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott and Cathy Crabtree, executive director of a nonprofit umbrella organization representing groups that work with abused and exploited children.

"With sexual predators increasingly using new technology to prey upon children, it is critical that law enforcement stay ahead of the criminals," Abbott said. "Innovative legislative responses to high tech crimes are vital to the ongoing success of our crackdown on cyber predators and online child pornographers."

Cornyn and Smith introduced companion versions of the Internet Stopping Adults Facilitating Exploitation of Today's Youth Act -- or Internet SAFETY Act -- in both chambers without cosponsors.

The bill would also establish tougher penalties for child pornography and sexual exploitation, and increase funding for an FBI initiative aimed at scrubbing sexually explicit images of kids from the Internet.

But to outspoken privacy advocates like Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, the bill is a well-intentioned but misguided stab at a much larger problem.

"There's a kind of narrow, kneejerk quality about protecting kids from predators," Chester told InternetNews.com. "There needs to be a broader debate here about protecting all Americans, including children."

Chester's group, which played an important role in the 1998 passage of the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, is working to gain an audience with lawmakers to develop a more holistic approach to privacy and child safety that would set parameters for how much data Web companies could collect about their users.

"I think their heart's in the right place," he said of Cornyn and Smith. "But most members of congress are incredibly naïve about how the online media system works."

Angela Campbell, a law professor at Georgetown University who also worked on the COPPA bill, echoed Chester's concern about the uninformed policy debate surrounding child safety online.

"One of the real problems here is that I don't think anyone is doing any research," Campbell told InternetNews.com.