The Legislation That Could Kill Internet Privacy for Good

An overzealous bill that claims to be about stopping child pornography turns every Web user into a person to monitor

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Every right-thinking person abhors child pornography. To combat it, legislators have brought through committee a poorly conceived, over-broad Congressional bill, The Protecting Children from Internet Pornographers Act of 2011. It is arguably the biggest threat to civil liberties now under consideration in the United States. The potential victims: everyone who uses the Internet.

The good news? It hasn't gone before the full House yet.

The bad news: it already made it through committee. And history shows that in times of moral panic, overly broad legislation has a way of becoming law. In fact, a particular moment comes to mind. 

In the early 20th Century, a different moral panic gripped the United States: a rural nation was rapidly moving to anonymous cities, sexual mores were changing, and Americans became convinced that an epidemic of white female slavery was sweeping the land. Thus a 1910 law that made it illegal to transport any person across state lines for prostitution "or for any other immoral purpose." Suddenly premarital sex and adultery had been criminalized, as scam artists would quickly figure out. "Women would lure male conventioneers across a state line, say from New York to Atlantic City, New Jersey," David Langum* explains, "and then threaten to expose them to the prosecutors for violation" unless paid off. Inveighing against the law, the New York Times noted that, though it was officially called the White Slave Traffic Act (aka The Mann Act), a more apt name would've been "the Encouragement of Blackmail Act."

That name is what brought the anecdote back to me. A better name for the child pornography bill would be The Encouragement of Blackmail by Law Enforcement Act. At issue is how to catch child pornographers. It's too hard now, say the bill's backers, and I can sympathize. It's their solution that appalls me: under language approved 19 to 10 by a House committee, the firm that sells you Internet access would be required to track all of your Internet activity and save it for 18 months, along with your name, the address where you live, your bank account numbers, your credit card numbers, and IP addresses you've been assigned.

Tracking the private daily behavior of everyone in order to help catch a small number of child criminals is itself the noxious practice of police states. Said an attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation: "The data retention mandate in this bill would treat every Internet user like a criminal and threaten the online privacy and free speech rights of every American." Even more troubling is what the government would need to do in order to access this trove of private information: ask for it.

I kid you not -- that's it.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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