Civil Liberties

Washington Attempts to Make us All Culpable for Online Child Pornography

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Never forget!

Have you heard about The Protecting Children from Internet Pornographers Act of 2011? It's the latest in a l-o-n-g line of just terrible bills proposed to calm (though never quite eliminate) the fears of middle-aged people about what that scary Internet might potentially do to Our Children. There's a hearing on the legislation taking place as we speak. Here's Cato's Jim Harper:

It's got everything: porn, children, the Internet. And it's got everything: financial services providers dragooned into law enforcement, data retention requirements heaped on Internet service providers, expanded "administrative subpoena" authority. (Administrative subpoenas are an improvisation to accommodate the massive power of the bureaucracy, and they've become another end-run around the Fourth Amendment. If it's "administrative" it must be reasonable, goes the non-thinking…)

This isn't a bill about child predation. It's a bald-faced attack on privacy and limited government.

Meanwhile, former Reasoner Julian Sanchez (also of Cato) muses that "I guess the 'You Are All Criminals Act' didn't have the same ring," and provides some context:

Thanks to an unwise Supreme Court decision dating from the 70s, information about your private activites loses its Fourth Amendment protection when its held by a "third party" corporation, like a phone company or Internet provider. As many legal scholars have noted, however, this allows constitutional privacy safeguards to be circumvented via a clever two-step process. Step one: The government forces private businesses (ideally the kind a citizen in the modern world can't easily avoid dealing with) to collect and store certain kinds of information about everyone—anyone might turn out to be a criminal, after all. No Fourth Amendment issue there, because it's not the government gathering it! Step two: The government gets a subpoena or court order to obtain that information, quite possibly without your knowledge. No Fourth Amendment problem here either, according to the Supreme Court, because now they're just getting a corporation's business records, not your private records. It makes no difference that they're only keeping those records because the government said they had to.

Current law already allows law enforcement to require retention of data about specific suspects—including e-mails and other information as well as IP addresses—to ensure that evidence isn't erased while they build up enough evidence for a court order. But why spearfish when you can lower a dragnet? Blanket data requirements ensure easy access to a year-and-a-half snapshot of the online activities of millions of Americans—every one a *potential criminal.

Re-read Jacob Sullum's phenomenal piece about "Perverted Justice" from our July special issue on criminal justice. That Time cover above comes from our great Radley Balko/Jeff Winkler collection of "The Top 10 Most Absurd Time Covers of The Past 40 Years."