Lawmakers push for bipartisan bill to fight online child porn

A bipartisan group of House lawmakers is drafting a bill that would require Internet service companies to maintain the computer identification records of users for the FBI to work with in investigating child-pornography suspects.


Democratic Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.) has thrown her support behind the measure, which, with its sponsor, Republican House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (Texas), could prove to be one of the rare pieces of legislation that manages to find bipartisan support in an increasingly divided House.

The bill, which Smith is planning to introduce in the next several weeks, would require Internet service providers (ISPs) to maintain records of individual users’ Internet Protocol (IP) addresses for a mandatory period of time, possibly up to two years.

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While children’s-rights groups are championing the measure, civil-liberty advocates say it’s a serious government intrusion on the privacy rights of Internet users, and could lead to a significant decline in online innovation and overall usage.

Wasserman Schultz said the FBI is unable to look into thousands of cases of child pornography because it lacks access to these records, which provide law enforcement officials with the name and information of the user. Both she and Smith stressed that they are aiming to address the privacy concerns in the bill.

There is no industry standard for how long ISPs maintain these records. Some keep them for as little as one week, while others like AOL say they keep them for 180 days before permanently deleting them.

“It’s a major hurdle, because you have a lot of these cases that go cold or they can’t be pursued at all because there are literally no tracks,” Wasserman Schultz told The Hill.

“I am a huge privacy-rights supporter, but we’re talking about the protection of children here, and we’re also talking about having the only avenue to pursuing a criminal investigation literally short-circuited because of the far too short amount of time that the companies are holding on to these records.”

 But the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said that the chilling effect on the online public could be considerable and would diminish the anonymous nature of the Internet, which the organization says has allowed for a laudable expansion of First Amendment expression.

“What the government is doing is trying to facilitate the ability of law enforcement to figure out what people are reading, and we think that raises serious First Amendment and privacy concerns,” said spokeswoman Catherine Crump.

“Individuals should be able to read online without the government forcing their Internet service provider to keep a record of them.”

FBI Director Robert Mueller told House lawmakers earlier this week at a Judiciary Committee hearing that granting the agency access to the records does not necessarily mean jeopardizing people’s privacy. He did not elaborate as to how a balance could be struck.

“The privacy interests, in my mind, can be protected adequately with a records-retention policy that gives us the tools we need to conduct a successful investigation,” Mueller said.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which assists law enforcement with hundreds of investigations into abused and abducted children, said that without retaining the IP addresses of computer users, the FBI’s hands are tied.

“It’s absolutely critical,” said Carolyn Atwell-Davis, the group’s director of legislative affairs. “That’s the beginning. They cannot begin an investigation unless law enforcement are able to connect online activity with a real person in the offline world.”

John Morris, the general counsel for the Center for Democracy and Technology, which advocates for open Internet usage, said that granting access to the records is a “slippery slope.”

“There are serious downsides to forcing the ISPs into being the beginning of an Orwellian tracking of online usage,” said Morris in an interview.

“These proposals are often made in the case of child pornography, but it is very unlikely that once Congress goes down the path of requiring ISPs to track their users that Congress and law enforcement will stop at child pornography and IP allocation. There really is a slippery-slope concern.”

Laws allow for the FBI to order ISPs to retain specific data that they’re targeting as part of an investigation, Morris said.

Smith has pushed the issue to the front burner in this Congress. He held a hearing on the matter in January and has been meeting with Wasserman Schultz and private industry ISP representatives to come to an agreed-upon time period for how long companies should be required to retain the records.

Smith introduced a similar measure last year, but it failed to make it out of committee. But now, as chairman of the panel, he stands a much better chance of getting it passed, so long as the large contingent of freshman Republicans do not raise serious privacy concerns.



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