H.R. 1981 Is A Turd Wrapped In Cotton Candy

    January 23, 2012
    Josh Wolford

Sometimes it feels like we’re all just playing a big game of electronic privacy whack-a-mole. And if we hold true to that analogy, the next mole that needs to be whacked might look cute on the outside – but it needs to be crushed nonetheless.

Ever since the giant internet-wide SOPA protests that went down last Wednesday, people have been celebrating the death of both SOPA and PIPA. While SOPA author Lamar Smith did say that he won’t bring the bill up in committee until “wider agreement on a solution” is reached, the bill is just a zombie requiring a headshot at this point. Likewise, PIPA isn’t 100% dead, but Harry Reid did postpone action on the bill “in light of recent events.”

Even if we can’t call SOPA and PIPA totally dead, we might be able to safely say that they’re mostly dead. And we can say with confidence that the internet protests had a big impact in those decisions. Seriously, just look at how congressional support for the legislation shifted in just one day.

But as we declare victory over SOPA and PIPA, the internet is quick to remind us that we must remain vigilant. And right now, that means turning our attention to another crappy piece of legislation, the innocuously titled H.R. 1981, Protecting Children From Internet Pornographers Act.

Let’s get right to the beefy bits regarding why this bill is bad news. Here’s a tidbit from section 4 concerning the retention of private records:

A commercial provider of an electronic communication service shall retain for a period of at least one year a log of the temporarily assigned network addresses the provider assigns to a subscriber to or customer of such service that enables the identification of the corresponding customer or subscriber information under subsection (c)(2) of this section.

And if that language is a little hard to decipher, here’s the summary on the Library of Congress website:

Requires a provider of an electronic communication service or remote computing service to retain for at least 18 months the temporarily assigned network addresses the service assigns to each account unless that address is transmitted by radio communication. Bars any cause of action against a provider for retaining records as required. Makes a good faith reliance on the requirement to retain records a complete defense to a civil action. Expresses the sense of Congress that such records should be stored securely to protect customer privacy and prevent breaches of the records.

The implications here are that all of your online movements will be tracked, stored, and made accessible without any real just cause. Oh, and it takes away your ability to have any recourse in the matter. All of this data could not only be used by law enforcement, but as the Electronic Frontier Foundation points out, “that same data could become available to civil litigants in private lawsuits–whether it’s the RIAA trying to identify downloaders, a company trying to uncover and retaliate against an anonymous critic, or a divorce lawyer looking for dirty laundry. These databases would also be a new and valuable target for black hat hackers, be they criminals trying to steal identities or foreign governments trying to unmask anonymous dissidents.”

Here’s what the ACLU has to say about the bill:

[The] legislation would create a sweeping new provision requiring Internet companies (email, cloud, social networking, and more) to collect and retain hundreds of millions of records about the identity of online users. The bill, HR 1981, the “Protecting Children From Internet Pornographers Act of 2011,” – if only it were that narrow! – is a direct assault on the privacy of Internet users and overlooks some key fixes that could actually help to address the very real problem of child exploitation.

If only it were that narrow indeed. You see, H.R. 1981 does something that is certainly not a first for bills in the U.S. Congress: it wraps a giant turd in cotton candy.

It takes an issue that most people can get behind and uses it to pass through crappy legislation that wouldn’t have a chance on its own. H.R. 1981 includes some alright stuff – as in, do you want stricter punishment for interstate commerce transactions that promote child porn? Sure! How about bolstering laws about protecting child witness? You bet!

Giant, sweeping data tracking provisions, however? No thank you.

One last thing about H.R. 1981 – it’s sponsored by Lamar Smith, who seems hell bent on destroying the internet.

The bill has already passed in the House Judiciary Committee and was placed on the Union Calendar on December 16th. As The Next Web points out, this means that the bill has been given “expedited consideration” and could be on the fast track to passing.

But if the internet community has shown us anything last week, it’s that buzzing about a topic on social media and bringing attention to something with coordinated protest can actually sway the opinions of those in power. Spread the word, sign a petition, call your congressperson. If you want somewhere to start, here’s a list of the 39 cosponsors of the bill.

[Lead Image via Reddit]