Child pornography, cyberbullying, online piracy--these are real-world problems that need solutions. But does legislating them away work?
You may think what your state capital or what Capitol Hill is up to is boring and not worth keeping tabs on. But see if you don't get your juices flowing after reading how your tech freedoms could be reined in by some of the dumb bills we've pinpointed in this story.
If lawmakers don’t think through the implications of the legislation they create, they just muck things up further. In fact, this slew of bills at the national and state levels--as well as several international treaty proposals in the works--are outright stupid.
You should be concerned about some of these proposed changes to U.S. law--how will they infringe upon your privacy? And note that a couple of them are in negotiations behind closed doors without public input at all.
H.R. 1981: Protecting Children from Internet Pornographers Act of 2011
The Legislation: If passed, this legislation could force any business offering paid Internet access--airports, hotels, coffee shops, and ISPs--to keep records of users’ online activities, so that if the government ever wants to inspect them, it can.
Why It's Terrible: Most people want to keep kids safe, but having the government spy on everyone who uses the Internet is not the answer. You’d think there would be other ways to catch perverts that don’t involve such a frightening infringement on the privacy of innocent people.
Status: H.R.1981 is out of committee; it has been placed on the calendar and is slated for discussion in the U.S. House of Representatives at some point.
Why You Should Care: Don’t let the title on this one fool you. H.R. 1981, if made into law, will let the government spy on and keep records of everything you do online.
Hawaii H.B.2288: Hawaiian Data Retention Bill
The Legislation: H.B.2288 would mandate that any company that provides Internet access in Hawaii--not only ISPs, but coffee shops, libraries and workplaces--keep two years of usage records, including the sites users visited and the IP addresses used.
Why It's Terrible: We’re not talking about the long-term tracking of people suspected of a crime, but everyone who uses the Web in the entire state of Hawaii. Imagine if all that data got into the wrong hands or could be used against people in some way.
Status: The politician who proposed the bill, Rep. Kymberly Pine, an Oahu Republican and the House minority floor leader, backed down from the bill, and it's been tabled.
Why You Should Care: The Electronic Frontier Foundation, whose motto is "Defending Your Rights in the Digital World," says H.B.2288 “is one of the most poorly drafted pieces of data retention legislation” that it has ever seen.
New York State S.6779 and A.8688
The Legislation: These bills require a website administrator, upon request, to remove any anonymous comments unless the person who posted it “agrees to attach his or her name to the post and confirms his or her IP address, legal name, and home address.” It also requires that websites make visible in any section where comments are posted a contact number or e-mail address that people can use to put through removal requests.
Why It's Terrible: According to EFF analyst Rebecca Jeschke, these bills are flatly unconstitutional. “We have a First amendment right to speak anonymously and certainly people who host their own websites can decide that they only want people to use their real names…But what you can’t do is have the government force people to speak using their real names. We have a history of anonymous speech here in the U.S. from The Federalist Papers through to today.”
Status: Both bills are still in committee.
Why You Should Care: Yes, folks who comment online can be rude and cyberbullying is a problem, but imagine how important discourse on a myriad of topics would decrease if people had to associate their names with them.
Trans Pacific Partnership
What It Is: U.S. negotiators are pushing for copyright measures far more restrictive than currently required by international treaties. According to the EFF, “The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is a secretive, multi-nation trade agreement that threatens to extend restrictive intellectual property laws across the globe.”
Why It's Terrible: It’s even worse than ACTA (the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement) and puts intellectual property governance in the hands of lobbyists. The EFF says the TPP will have a broad impact on citizens’ rights, the future of the Internet’s global infrastructure, and global innovation. And again, this one is being forged largely without input from the public.
Status: The next round of TPP negotiations will be held in San Diego, California, on July 2-10.
Why You Should Care: SOPA backers such as the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), plus plenty of other corporate entities, are behind the TPP. For more ugly details about the TPP, visit the EFF, where you can use an automated action alert to tell your congressional representatives that you’re against the agreement.
DMCA: Digital Millennium Copyright Act
The Legislation: This one isn’t new, but it’s bad enough to deserve a mention. The DMCA made it illegal to produce and share technology or services that circumvent digital rights management (DRM) technologies that keep you from using digital content in ways that content providers didn’t intend.
Why It's Terrible: Instead of working against people stealing copyrighted content, DMCA is often used against consumers, scientists, and legitimate competitors. For instance, in 2009 Google said that more than half of the takedown notices it had received under the DMCA were sent by businesses targeting competitors and that more than one third were not valid copyright claims.
Status: The DMCA became law in 1998.
Why You Should Care: Clearly the DMCA didn’t do away with content pirating, or we wouldn’t still see Hollywood trying to push legislation like SOPA or ACTA.
Next: More bad bills (CISPA, SOPA, PIPA, and more).
H.R 3523: Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA), and S.2151: SECURE IT
The Legislation: These bills seek to protect the U.S. from cyberterrorism and other online attacks and would let companies share users' private data with government agencies. Such data would not be just regarding threats of online attacks; companies would be able to share users' private data in the event of computer crime or the exploitation of minors, and to protect people from the danger of death or serious bodily harm.
Why They Are Terrible: The legislation is overly broad and would allow companies to share people’s private and sensitive information with the government without a warrant or oversight. Government agencies such as the National Security Agency or other parts of the Department of Defense could then keep it forever and create profiles for not only suspected terrorists, but regular people as well.
Status: CISPA was passed in the House of Representatives in April. Either CISPA or SECURE IT will likely come up for a vote in the Senate soon. The Obama administration has issued a statement saying that if CISPA ends up on the President’s desk, his senior advisors will recommend that he veto it.
Why You Should Care: If the government wants personal information on users of services, including the content of e-mail messages, it should have to go to a judge and get a warrant. Otherwise we’re looking at a police state. Want to do something about it? PrivacyIsAwesome.com provides several automated tools for reaching out to lawmakers about the issue.
H.R. 96: Internet Freedom Act
The legislation: This bill would stop the Federal Communications Commission from executing on its “Net Neutrality” rules, which aim to keep the Internet open by stopping Internet service providers from doing things such as throttling or blocking access to the Internet.
Why It's Terrible: According to SaveTheInternet.com, phone and cable companies are spending hundreds of millions of dollars lobbying Congress to axe Net Neutrality so they can decide “which websites and apps go fast, which go slow … and which won't load at all."
The site adds, "They want to tax content providers to guarantee speedy delivery of their data. And they want to discriminate in favor of their own apps, services and content -- while slowing down or blocking competitors’ services.”
Status: H.R.96 has been referred to the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Communications and Technology.
Why You Should Care: Who wants commercial greed dictating the availability and speed of the Internet? This one is a bad egg.
State of Arizona House Bill 2549
The Legislation: H.B.2549 is another one intended to act against bullying and stalking. It criminalizes the use any electronic or digital device to communicate using "obscene, lewd or profane language" if done with the intent to "terrify, intimidate, threaten, harass, annoy or offend."
Why It's Terrible: According to First Amendment rights group Media Coalition, commenting on the bill's original wording, the bill “… is not limited to a one to one conversation between two specific people. The communication does not need to be repetitive or even unwanted. There is no requirement that the recipient or subject of the speech actually feel offended, annoyed or scared. Nor does the legislation make clear that the communication must be intended to offend or annoy the reader, the subject or even any specific person.”
Status: Governor Jan Brewer signed H.B. 2549 into law on May 14, but only after concerns raised by the Media Coalition were addressed in amendments to the bill. According to the group:
“First, ‘annoy’ and ‘offend’ have been removed from the legislation so that the bill would only apply to electronic speech that is intended to terrify, threaten, intimidate, or harass. Second, the intent to terrify, threaten, intimidate, or harass must be of a specific person(s) rather than a general intent. Third, the communication must be directed to the person the speaker intends to terrify, threaten, intimidate, or harass rather than be a general communication. Fourth, the legislation is limited to telephone calls, text messages, instant messages, and email.”
Why You Should Care: It just goes to show how much we need watchdogs keeping an eye on legislation coming down the pike. Kudos to the Media Coalition for its work getting this atrocity cleaned up before it went live.
H.R. 3261: Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), and S.968: Protect IP Act (PIPA)
The Legislation: These federal bills would have allowed rights holders to seek court orders requiring payment providers, advertisers, and search engines to stop doing business with websites that infringe copyrighted material so that search links to such sites would be removed. (For background, see "SOPA and PIPA: Just the Facts.")
Why They Were Terrible: Neither piece of legislation did enough to protect against false accusations. In addition, an open letter to Washington signed by tech industry big shots such as Sergey Brin and Jack Dorsey in December pointed out that such legislation would “Give the U.S. Government the power to censor the web using techniques similar to those used by China, Malaysia and Iran.”
Status: After a mass protest by Web companies and users on January 18, Congress indefinitely postponed further action on the bills, effectively leaving them dead in the water.
Why You Should Care: A big thank-you goes to the many companies and millions of regular people who stood up to douse these two.
Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA)
What It Is: As SOPA and PIPA’s big brother, the treaty would let countries employ a three-strike rule that would require Internet users to be cut off if they continue to download copyrighted material after two warnings.
Why It's Terrible: Unlike SOPA and PIPA, ACTA was crafted in secret. It aims to protect intellectual property but requires highly intrusive monitoring of Internet users’ habits to do so. It also doesn’t include safeguards, such as judicial oversight or the presumption of innocence.
Status: The agreement becomes official only if ratified by 6 of the 11 signatories: Australia, Canada, the European Union, Japan, Mexico, Morocco, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea, Switzerland, and the U.S. ACTA was signed by the European Commission and 22 E.U. member states in January, but following protests throughout Europe, many countries reversed their decisions to sign. European Parliament committees recently voted to reject it.
Why You Should Care: When wide-sweeping regulations are concocted without public involvement, you know something’s wrong.