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The Internet Safety Act launches a new battle on privacy

Column: Children need to be protected online, but these new bills go too far.

By Tom ReganColumnist for The Christian Science Monitor / February 25, 2009

Vania Nino has a coffee as she uses the Internet at the small neighborhood Sacred Grounds Coffee House in San Francisco. If passed, the Internet Security Act would force such shops to keep records of everyone that uses their Internet connection for two years.

Tony Avelar/The Christian Science Monitor

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If you haven’t been paying attention, there has been a great battle taking place over tighter controls on the Internet. On one side are those fighting to stop child pornography or access to other questionable materials. On the other is privacy advocates who argue that the best thing about the Internet is how free and accessible it is and that it promotes democracy and free speech.

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The latter forces have tended to win the day, especially after Congress enacts some new measure that clamps down on the Internet and the law is later challenged in court as a violation of the First Amendment.

The latest salvo in this ongoing, and often quite nasty battle was fired last Thursday by two Republicans from Texas: Sen. Jon Cornyn and Rep. Lamar Smith. The two men filed almost identical bills in the House and Senate with the same name: Internet Stopping Adults Facilitating the Exploitation of Today’s Youth Act. Most people refer to it as simply the “Internet Safety Act.”

The bill would require almost everyone who provides Internet access to retain all records for two years. Right now, that includes big Internet service providers (ISPs) such as Verizon or Comcast, the coffee shop that offers free wireless access, and me because I have an Internet router set up at home that is accessed by several people. CNET News noted that the day the acts were introduced in Congress, “both the US Department of Justice’s position and legal definition of ‘electronic communication services’ line up with this [broad] interpretation.”

Another section of the bill says that anyone who “knowingly engages in any conduct the provider knows or has reason to believe facilitates access to, or the possession of, child pornography” can be tried under the law. More than a few ISPs worry that this broad wording includes the mere act of providing services such as e-mail might “facilitate access” to illegal material.

But in an opinion piece last week in the Dallas Morning News, Representative Smith argues that law enforcement agents needs new tools to close the “safe haven” that pedophiles have found online.

Sen. John Cornyn and I have introduced the Internet Safety Act, which directs ISPs to retain specified data for up to two years,” he writes. “This can help law enforcement officials identify who is uploading, viewing, and distributing explicit child pornography.