Wednesday, August 03, 2011
A bill has gotten through committee in Congress that effectively assumes that we're all child pornographers, and threatens to subject anyone at any time to unreasonable searches of their Internet activity. Worse still, as Conor Friedersdorf of the Atlantic points out, there is, as yet, little opposition to the bill from any quarter.
Perhaps, in an age in which numerous people are reveling in the selective openness made possible (and, often, advantageous) by new technology, too many of us are forgetting that a complete, government-enforced "openness" would actually be far from exhilarating.
Nor do police need probable cause to search this information. As Rep. James Sensenbrenner says, (R-Wisc.) "It poses numerous risks that well outweigh any benefits, and I'm not convinced it will contribute in a significant way to protecting children."Friedersdorf is right to liken this bill to the Mann Act, which also created a new way to extort people. With new protection schemes already taking advantage of new social media, the last thing we need is the government joining the fun, or lending a helping hand to the meddlesome or the criminally-inclined.
Among those risks: blackmail.
In Communist countries, where the ruling class routinely dug up embarrassing information on citizens as a bulwark against dissent, the secret police never dreamed of an information trove as perfect for targeting innocent people as a full Internet history. Phrases I've Googled in the course of researching this item include "moral panic about child pornography" and "blackmailing enemies with Internet history." For most people, it's easy enough to recall terms you've searched that could be taken out of context, and of course there are lots of Americans who do things online that are perfectly legal, but would be embarrassing if made public even with context: medical problems and adult pornography are only the beginning. How clueless do you have to be to mandate the creation of a huge database that includes that sort of information, especially in the age of Anonymous and Wikileaks? How naive do you have to be to give government unfettered access to it? Have the bill's 25 cosponsors never heard of J. Edgar Hoover? [link dropped, emphasis added]
Whatever benefits accrue to openness lie in the ability of the person disclosing private information to present that information with the relevant context, rather than having something cherry-picked from their activities, and presented as "fact" in a context insinuating something that is untrue. While there will always be people who attempt to do this, the legislation pending before Congress will greatly empower such people.
Anyone who imagines that this legislation is harmless because they "have nothing to hide" are mistaken at best. The difference between this bill's consequences and the Internet as it is now, is similar to that between disrobing at a nude beach on a warm summer day -- and, say, being groped by TSA agents for the rest of our lives.