A Big Brother bill quietly moving through the House of Representatives would effectively end Americans’ online privacy. H.R.1981, the Protecting Children from Internet Pornographers Act of 2011, would force Internet service providers to maintain a national database of every user’s name, address, phone number, credit card information, bank account numbers and IP address.
“The records would involve all Internet users everywhere, and they would be available to law enforcement for any purpose,” a coalition of 30 privacy groups warned in an open letter to Congress.
In our view, HR1981 might be the worst threat to civil liberties since the USA PATRIOT Act. It grants law enforcement an unprecedented power to invade our privacy and puts every American at risk of identity theft, all without keeping a single child safe from sexual exploitation.
It’s no wonder why law enforcement agencies, spearheaded by the Justice Department, are salivating at the surveillance powers granted by this bill. We live in an ever-connected world. Even when our smart phones and tablets are turned off, these devices continue to leave a digital footprint of where we’ve been and with whom we’ve communicated.
“Would you want your neighbors to know the last 100 websites you visited?” That’s how a spokeswoman for the Electronic Frontier Foundation explained the bill’s coercive nature to us.
It’s not just the guilty who have reason to fear; it’s anyone who holds a radical idea or challenges government power. Consider, for example, cases of police brutality. Witnesses might be intimidated from speaking out if they knew police could publicize their Internet history at trial. We aren’t exactly stretching our imagination with such a scenario.
Of course, there’s also the practical concern that our personal information could be stolen by hackers, terrorists or foreign governments. Earlier this year, Sony admitted that hackers had stolen the personal information of more than 100 million customers. FBI Director Robert Mueller has called cyberterrorism a threat to national security that is “real” and “rapidly expanding.” And security experts have attributed at least two U.S. power outages to computer hackers working on behalf of the Chinese government.
Like the bill’s 26 congressional co-sponsors, you might remain steadfast: Child pornography should be fought at any price. Then, we recommend you read the Justice Department’s May 2006 report, “Child Pornography on the Internet,” which concluded, “A computer-savvy user can access these (child pornography) groups by using techniques that hide his/her identity by concealing his/her true IP address.”
HR 1981 won’t stop pedophiles. However, it reminds us that liberty is ever-vulnerable in the ongoing tension between security for all, especially children, and personal freedom.