Lawmakers in the U.S. and Canada are considering two different, yet distinctly similar bills that critics say would forever end the concept of online privacy.
Both bills promise enhanced protections for children targeted by child pornographers on the Internet by mandating that Internet service providers (ISPs) maintain lengthy records of individual users' electronic communications, which are to be handed over to authorities upon request.
In the U.S., Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) introduced the Protecting Children from Internet Pornographers Act (PCIP) last year, and it finally cleared committee before January, putting it on the fast-track for a vote by the full House at-large. Two similar bills failed in 2009, but the latest attempt at data retention in the U.S has succeeded in part because it was overshadowed by uproar over another bill authored by Smith, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). SOPA, however, did not make it out of committee after the Internet's first ever major work stoppage protest effectively scuttled most of the bill's support.
In Canada, a similar proposal was being called the "Lawful Access Act" -- until last week, when it was suddenly renamed the "Protecting Children from Internet Predators Act." It, too, would mandate that ISPs track websites, IP addresses, telephone numbers, email addresses and other personally identifying information, obtainable by police acting with a warrant. A previous attempt at similar legislation failed in 2004, but with Canadian conservatives in a strong majority, it seems likely to pass this time around -- and moreso thanks to the bill's new title, which allows proponents to berate their opposition as standing up for child pornographers.
Critics of both bills say they are tantamount to preemptive spying on the whole Internet-using population, with private industry acting as the government's willing servant by cataloging and saving untold volumes of private data for law enforcement monitors to sort through. They also suggest that, at least in the U.S., it is unnecessary because the Stored Communications Act requires preservation of records for up to 180 days if the government requests it. Both the U.S. and Canadian bills would require that ISPs retain data for up to 18 months. Similarly, some companies like Yahoo and Google voluntarily retain data for a set period.
A similar proposal called the "Communications Capabilities Development Programme" is being developed by British lawmakers. It will additional require ISPs to track private communications on Facebook, Twitter and through online video game services such as Xbox Live.
While opposition to these bills has risen up in each nation, it has not reached even a fraction of the push-back seen in the battle over recent U.S. anti-piracy provisions, which ultimately failed after some of the Internet's largest website operators lined up against it.
However, with data retention already on the books in the European Union, more nations adopting the U.S. copyright framework proposed in the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) with every passing week, and a forthcoming continental normalization of all E.U. Internet privacy provisions, the inevitable march of self-similarity between Internet laws in the Western world continues unabated.
"Mandatory data retention creates huge potential for abuse and should be rejected as a serious infringement on the rights and freedoms of individuals," the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a technology rights advocate group, explained in an advisory. "Mandatory data retention is pervasive surveillance of every ordinary citizen and should not be tolerated in countries where freedom is valued."