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2006-05-18

New Internet Legislation Would Force ISPs To Track Customers’ Online Activities

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Republican Congressman James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin is preparing legislation that rewrite Internet privacy rules. Under the proposed legislation, Internet service providers would be required to keep logs tracking what users did online in order to help police to be able to "conduct criminal investigations." We speak the reporter who broke this story, Declan McCullagh, the chief political correspondent for CNET News.com. [includes rush transcript]

As we continue to talk about privacy issues and government surveillance we turn to a related story out of Washington. The technology news website CNET News.com is reporting that Republican Congressman James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin is preparing legislation that rewrite Internet privacy rules. Under the proposed legislation, Internet service providers would be required to keep logs tracking what users did online in order to help police to be able to 'conduct criminal investigations.' Executives at Internet companies that fail to comply would be fined and imprisoned for up to one year.

Technology experts say this marks a dramatic shift in the Bush administration’s view on Internet privacy. To talk about this we are joined by the reporter who broke this story, Declan McCullagh. He is the chief political correspondent for CNET News.com.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: To talk about this, we’re joined by the reporter who broke the story, Declan McCullagh. He is the chief political correspondent for CNET News.com. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Declan. It’s good to have you with us.

DECLAN McCULLAGH: Hi there.

AMY GOODMAN: Hi. Can you talk about what this is about?

DECLAN McCULLAGH: Sure. What we’re talking about here is proposed legislation that has not been introduced that would do two things. It would require internet service providers to basically keep records of what their users do, and it would also, in some ways, restrict access to child porn sites by criminalizing making available discussion forums or what not, where links to those sites could appear.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And the purpose of this is to just be able to have a background for law enforcement to go after criminal investigations, even though there’s no clear crimes that are being sought after right now?

DECLAN McCULLAGH: The purpose of it depends on who you talk to. It seems likely that it grows out of — and some folks on Capitol Hill I’ve talked to have said just this, though not on the record — that it grows out of House Republicans’ basically attempts to get re-elected in the fall, in the November elections. That is, this is something that can be seen as protecting children. This is something that can play well in suburbia, and this is something that also polls well. So, the thing, though, is that, even though this is said as going after child pornography, if you require internet service providers to record information about what their users are doing, their customers are doing, this can be used in any kind of investigations, a tax investigation, drug investigations, any type of investigation. The data would just be sitting there available for a subpoena or perhaps even a court order in a divorce case.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Declan McCullagh, chief political correspondent for CNET News.com. Could you explain exactly how this would work and how much information they would be getting from people, especially if people are really not conversant with the internet and the lingo and what ISPs mean?

DECLAN McCULLAGH: Sure. Well, first, let me preface that with: Sensenbrenner may not introduce the legislation. I’ve heard from a staff that he’s basically backing away from this as a result of criticism, especially from the industry. But if it goes forward — and this is something that the Attorney General has called for and other Bush administration officials have endorsed — that what it would do is rewrite the rules governing internet privacy. Right now, your internet service provider does maintain sort of a minimum amount of logs about what you do. That is, it tracks what internet address you’ve been assigned, and maybe it tracks a little bit about what email you send. So, this is useful for billing disputes, fraud, spam-related reasons, but these logs are typically minimal and deleted during the course of routine business practice. But this is expensive to keep these things.

So, what Sensenbrenner’s draft legislation, if it’s introduced and becomes law, would do is it would rewrite those laws by saying internet service providers shall be subject to this mandatory data retention regime that could say — and this is the problem: the details are left to the Attorney General. But it’s a broad grant of power to the Attorney General, and it would give him the power to say things, like "All logs of web browsing, what URLs or web pages were visited, will be retained, who you sent email to, what the subject line was, maybe what the contents were, how long you stayed online, who you talked to, what you did, instant messaging conversations. Basically anything you did on the internet could be saved and in logs that would be available to law enforcement for the next few years. This is actually not that dissimilar from what the Europeans have done.

AMY GOODMAN: Declan McCullagh, we want to thank you very much for being with us, chief political correspondent for CNET News.com.

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