The war over the web

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Corruption hates exposure. Power prefers to go unchallenged. The Internet has become one of the most powerful tools at the disposal of truth tellers, truth seekers and whistleblowers. Print publications are losing money and shifting their content from print to digital. The Internet has become the new battleground where the government, the mainstream media and big businesses fight to re-establish their dominance. They jointly strive to control the online content and its sharing, location and usage tracking and as well as Internet commerce. To put it simply, the government wants to contain its critics, the mainstream media wants to knock out the alternatives and big enterprises would like to suffocate small online businesses. Lobbying the legislature is an expensive luxury that is infinitely more accessible to the rich and powerful. Money begets more money and power shares nothing without demand.

The way we use the Internet may change in the near future if power brokers get their way. For example, big businesses are hard at work, lobbying for the taxation of online businesses. Traditionally, many states relied on a 1992 Supreme Court decision which held that mail-order merchants are not required to collect sales taxes when they don’t have a physical presence in that particular state. However, more and more states are caving in under pressure from the Streamlined Sales Tax Project, a group that introduced the Main Street Fairness Act on July 29, 2011. Many states are now stepping up their efforts to collect taxes from online purchases. For example, the New York state has added a line to income tax returns, requiring all residents to calculate how much they should pay on Internet, mail order, or out-of-state purchases. California and other states are also moving in that direction. We’re most likely seeing the last days of sales-free online shopping.

In addition to reaching for our wallets, the powers that be are targeting other aspects of our Internet usage. They underestimate our ability to decipher the true nature of pending legislation by assuming that most of us suffer from what I call the Facebook Syndrome. Those are the people who discuss various topics without making any effort to gain independent knowledge about them. That segment of the population tends to discuss the content of news articles based solely on their titles, or relying on the way such issues are portrayed by the mainstream media. That is the target audience for many of the deceptive bills that promise to save us while trampling over our rights and liberties, like elephants in ballet shoes. Our fearless leaders hope that we’ll be quick to support any aptly-named legislation. Nancy Pelosi exposed this strategy when she famously stated that if the public doesn’t support a certain bill, the lawmakers should simply change some key words in the title to please the people. That’s how “public option” became “consumer option,” the big bank “bailout” was renamed into “Troubled Asset Relief Program”, Internet specialists became Cyberspace Warriors and the Internet surveillance bill received the title “Protecting Children From Internet Pornographers Act of 2011”.

The idea behind the naming of the latter is quite ingenious – after all, lawmakers would be hesitant to oppose any legislation that claims to protect children from pornography. Relying on constituents with the Facebook Syndrome, the bill’s proponents are plainly hoping that the bill’s true nature will be overshadowed by its noble title. However, instead of protecting innocent victims, this deceptive legislation might be creating them.

The bill is overbroad, requiring that Internet access providers track every user’s online activity and save it for 18 months, along with their name, address, bank account/credit card numbers, IP address, instant message chat logs, etc. The idea behind this bill is to treat every American as a criminal, monitoring and recording their activities. The treasure-trove of data would be handed over to anyone in the government upon a request. Rep. John Conyers stated, “The bill is mislabeled… This is not protecting children from Internet pornography. It’s creating a database for everybody in this country for a lot of other purposes.” Internet records pertaining to undercover operations conducted by various agencies within the intelligence community could be unwittingly swept up and investigated by other law enforcement agencies, potentially jeopardizing law enforcement and national security.

Being suspected of any crime is all that is required to rummage through this information. It could also be made available to attorneys litigating lawsuits against the government, investigating suspected whistleblowers and handling civil disputes. The mere knowledge that such information is being retained would make it a target of countless discovery requests in civil and criminal courts. Rep. James Sensenbrenner said, “It poses numerous risks that well outweigh any benefits, and I’m not convinced it will contribute in a significant way to protecting children.” Criminals could easily continue surfing the web anonymously through Internet café’s and libraries. Howeverlaw-abiding Americans would have all of their activities recorded, placing them under virtual surveillance during 100% of their time on the Internet. This would be tantamount to installing hidden cameras in every American household, with the provision that one year’s worth of footage would be made available anytime upon request. Much like the “naked” airport scanners, online data retention legislation would serve as a naked Internet scanner, a virtual fishing expedition into your possible future transgressions.

U.S. Department of Justice has been actively lobbying for sweeping Internet data retention requirements since 2005. Rep. Lamar Smith introduced a similarly overbroad bill in 2007, calling it the Internet Stopping Adults Facilitating the Exploitation of Today’s Youth Act of 2007 (the SAFETY Act). It also called for the ISP’s tomonitor the activities of their customers. When prior versions of the bill died, new variations kept getting introduced under modified names. This bill was approved by the House Judiciary Committee on July 27, 2011,hidden from public scrutiny amidst the media frenzy surrounding the debt ceiling debate.

Stockpiling so much data would create virtually unlimited money-making opportunities for a number of enterprises. Collection of this data is not the only concern. This goldmine of information could also be hacked into, stolen, sold and otherwise willingly or mistakenly disclosed to unauthorized parties. Apparently, our elected officials haven’t learned a thing from all of the staggering breaches of data in our recent history, such as 77 million compromised accountsof Sony’s PlaysStation Network, over 130 million consumer records of the fifth largest credit card processing company and over 40 million of credit card numbers of Visa, MasterCard, American Express and CardSystems jeopardized by hackers. We also shouldn’t forget the instances when information is obtained by the likes of Anthony Pellicano, a PI who was able to bully, wiretap and buy his way into the private lives of numerous high-profile victims. Simply put, ordering ISP’s to collect and safeguard immense amounts of private information is a recipe for disaster.

At the same time, ISP’s would be indemnified from any potential litigation by the victims of inevitable abuse. Just ask OnStar about such an indemnity clause that protects them for covertly providing information to the government. For about $150 dollars an hour, they’re not only able to violate the privacy of anyone who has OnStar installed in their vehicle (even if the service isn’t activated or used by the customer), but have a “license to lie” in response to the non-governmental inquiries about whether or not such disclosures have been made.

It should be noted that under current legislation, law enforcement already has the authority to contact any Internet Service Provider, requiring that they immediately start preserving the records pertaining to certain users for up to 90 days (renewable indefinitely). This can be done without a warrant or demonstrating probable cause. Our federal courts have also supported the push to track our online activities. New Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (FRCP) guidelines went into effect as of December 1, 2006, expanding the types of electronically-stored information that parties could be required to produce in a lawsuit.

There are other pieces of legislation targeting our online activities, such as the Protect IP Act orPIPA (Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act of 2011, also known as United States Senate Bill S.968). Senator Wyden placed a hold on PIPA, noting that it poses a significant threat to Internet commerce, innovation and free speech. The bill seeks to give the U.S. DOJ the power to “expeditiously” remove certain websites from the Internet and prevent search engines and other websites from linking to the content in question. This bill is a reincarnation of Combating Online Infringements and Counterfeits Act (COICA), which failed to pass in 2010.

When American taxpayers oppose a certain a bill and it fails to pass, its proponents simply rename, slightly amend and re-submit it, at the expense of the same citizens who didn’t want it passed to begin with. Instead of protecting our rights and championing worthy causes, some of our elected officials actively strive to undermine them. At the same time, government agencies that were created to protect us from external threats waste manpower and taxpayers’ funds to treat American patriots as terrorists and devote enormous resources to harassing reporters, bloggers and whistleblowers. The Department of Homeland Security’s agency, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is supposed to be protecting “national security, public safety and the integrity of our borders”. Instead, between 2008 and 2011, in the course of its operation “In Our Sites” ICE devoted 834,360.00 hours to policing the Internet, conducting 2,889 website investigations and bragging that they were “Kicking ass and seizing websites – While you were eating your turkey.”

In its 2009 Cyberspace Policy Review, the White House decided to make “cybersecurity a national priority,” claiming that “nearly every single American citizen is touched by cyberspace and is threatened by cyber attacks.” We are in fact facing cyber attacks, but some of them are led by our own government. There are numerous pending bills that have the potential to end the concept of the Internet as you know it: Executive Cyberspace Coordination Act of 2011, Cybersecurity and Internet Freedom Act of 2011 (also known as the ‘‘Internet Freedom Act’’), Cyberspace Warriors Act of 2011, Homeland Security Cyber and Physical Infrastructure Protection Act of 2011, Cyber Security and American Cyber Competitiveness Act of 2011. Other bills, such as Do Not Track Me Online Act, Federal Agency Transparency Act, Transparency and Openness in Government Act, sound good in title, but are extremely limited in scope.

Sen. Joe Lieberman told CNN’s Candy Crowley on State of the Union, “China has the power to shut down its Internet, so why can’t we?” With all of the legislation pending in Congress, we’re certainly moving in that direction. Every move you make online may soon be up for grabs – and it will likely be used for purposes other than fighting child pornography. Just as the Patriot Act was abused to conduct fishing expeditions into the records of law-abiding citizens, the new legislation is ripe for abuse. The bill presumes us all guilty until proven innocent.

It is not only a right, but also an obligation of every conscientious American citizen to read the full text of such bills and inform their elected officials if they are not in agreement with what is being proposed. It is also important that we watch the track record of our representatives and vote them out of office if their performance does not comport with the interests of our nation. Power and money have a lot of pull in Congress, but so do our votes. Every voice counts, every opinion matters. Take every opportunity to speak up for what’s right, especially while you can still share it with countless others on the Internet. Use it or lose it. Our constitutional freedoms are slipping away with every click of a mouse.

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