Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) says his proposed law will protect children from pornographers. But advocacy groups say it jeopardizes every American's online privacy by giving law enforcement easy access to an unprecedented cache of personal information.
The Protecting Children from Internet Pornographers Act of 2011 would require Internet providers to store the IP addresses they assign to a customer’s Internet-connected devices along with identifying information like the customer’s name, address and the credit card numbers.
While wireless carriers like AT&T and broadband providers like Comcast store account information, they have not been required to link it with IP addresses, which can identify someone’s general location and their device. (Msnbc.com is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBCUniversal, a unit of Comcast.)
"An IP address is like a street address or a phone number; it's the arrow that points packets of information your way when people send you things over the Internet," Rainey Reitman, Electronic Frontier Foundation's activism director, wrote in a blog post. "But it cannot tell you who is actually sitting behind a computer screen, typing at a computer."
However, it can provide a pretty clear picture of your routine over time. People are creatures of habit. You probably check your email when you get up. You check it several times at work and again when you get home in the evening. With knowledge of your personal trail of IP addresses, it’s not too hard to decipher your daily activities.
That's why IP addresses, pinned to customer information, could prove invaluable to law enforcement as they track criminals.
However, under Smith’s bill, records of both suspects and ordinary citizens would all be available to any government agency at any time, no warrant required.
"This type of legislation goes against the fundamental values of our country where individuals are treated as innocent until proven guilty," Reitman said. "H.R. 1981 would uproot this core American principle, forcing ISPs to treat everyone like a potential criminal."
The bill has been forwarded from committee to the full House of Representatives for consideration, which is expected later this year. There is no sign of a Senate version at this time.
If the past is any indicator, Smith may be in for a hard fight with activists. He was also sponsor of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) bill that would have shut off access to foreign websites accused of hosting pirated content. But he was forced to withdraw the legislation after massive protests by many of the same opponents who likewise thought the remedy was too harsh for the problem.
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