Following the recent riots in England, Prime Minister David Cameron suggested the answer wasn't better policing but a crackdown on communication via Facebook and Twitter. "Everyone watching these horrific actions will be struck by how they were organized via social media," Cameron said. "Free flow of information can be used for good, but it can also be used for ill. So we are working with the police, the intelligence services and industry to look at whether it would be right to stop people from communicating via these websites and services when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality."
Think about that: The British government wants to stop people from communicating. It's disheartening to hear politicians in a supposedly free society mull solutions that echo those used by former Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak when he shut down the Internet in a failed attempt to silence last year's protests in his country. Thankfully, that would never happen in the United States.
Or would it?
Meet the Cybersecurity and Internet Freedom Act of 2011 — an Orwellian name if there ever was one, as the bill is about anything but freedom. The tripartisan measure — backed by U.S. Sens. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn.; Susan Collins, R-Maine; and Tom Carper, D-Del. — would give the White House sweeping authority to regulate or even shut down the Internet in the event of a "cyber-emergency." Lieberman, in defending the bill, actually said, "Right now China, the government, can disconnect parts of its Internet in case of war, and we need to have that here, too." Does Lieberman really think the United States needs to take lessons from one of the most repressive regimes on the globe?
Another measure, H.R. 1981, would be more aptly numbered H.R. 1984. The Protecting Children from Internet Pornographers Act of 2011 purports to fight child porn by forcing Internet service providers to track every move its users make online for 18 months at a time — and turn the results over to the government for the asking. Your email, your passwords, your logins, your credit card numbers, your Web browsing history — all of it. Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., who opposes the bill, says it will "let us find out where every single American visited websites." The Electronic Frontier Foundation summarizes its threat aptly: "This sweeping new 'mandatory data retention' proposal treats every Internet user like a potential criminal and represents a clear and present danger to the online free speech and privacy rights of millions of innocent Americans."
Like the Cybersecurity and Internet Freedom Act, the Protecting Children from Internet Pornographers Act is disingenuously named. "This is not protecting children from Internet pornography," says Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich. "It's creating a database for everybody in this country for a lot of other purposes." Still, Orwell was right: What politician can safely vote against a law specifically (if misleadingly) dubbed a weapon in the war against child porn? That's what the bill's sponsors — Reps. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, and Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla. — are counting on. The bill cleared the House Judiciary Committee by a vote of 19-10 last month. "Every piece of prematurely discarded information could be the footprint of a child predator," Smith said on Aug. 3. By that logic, the government should have the right to hear and record every phone call, just in case someone might be plotting to hurt a child.
Law enforcement needs strong tools to combat the scourges of child porn and terrorism. That's what subpoenas and search warrants (based on probable cause) are for. These proposals go way, way too far. They are the cyber-equivalent of giving police unfettered access to any home they choose to enter — on the pretext that a crime might be in progress inside. The traditional Democratic defense of the Bill of Rights and the traditional Republican push for smaller government should make these bills anathema to both parties.
Cameron's plan to suspend social media communication in Britain is wrong, and these proposed laws are just as wrong. Worse than wrong, they are dangerous. They are an affront to the very principles on which this country was built. Speak out against these bills, folks — while you still can.