House Judiciary Committee Passes Internet Snooping Bill

WASHINGTON — The U.S. House Judiciary Committee has approved a measure that would force ISPs to save users’ IP address information for one year to aid in the fight against child porn.

The bill, HR 1981 — The Protecting Children from Internet Pornographers Act of 2011 – was approved on a 19-10 vote and considered a victory for conservative Republicans despite opposition from digital rights groups and civil liberties advocates.

An 11th hour rewrite of the controversial data retention mandate reportedly expands the information that commercial ISPs are required to store to include customers' names, addresses, phone numbers, credit card numbers, bank account numbers, and temporarily-assigned IP addresses.

The panel rejected an amendment that would have clarified that only IP addresses must be stored.

Critics complain that the bill’s data retention requirements threaten consumer privacy and increases the risk of data breach.

Prior to the vote, Rep. Zoe Lofgren of California, who led Democratic opposition to the legislation said the bill is a “stalking horse for a massive expansion of federal power.”

She said it represents "a data bank of every digital act by every American" that would "let us find out where every single American visited websites."

Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, the senior Democrat on the panel said 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."

Earlier this month, The Association of Sites Advocating Child Protection (ASACP) penned a letter to the U.S. Congress that was widely circulated on Capitol Hill, protesting its erroneous use of the phrase “Internet Pornographers” in the new legislation.

ASACP executive director Tim Henning told XBIZ that lumping in adult businesses in the bill's labeling is flat out wrong. "'Protecting Children From Internet Pedophiles’ or ‘Protecting Children From Internet Sex Crimes’ would both be more appropriate and accurate titles for this Act," the ASACP letter stated.

Henning also said that although his organization supports global law enforcement efforts to protect children, there are a number of legal and technological paths including the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) already in place and that mandating a new requirement for ISPs to collect and retain IP addresses is overboard and problematic from privacy, security and economic standpoints.

But supporters, like Texas Republican Representative Lamar Smith, chairman of the committee, claim it's an aid to law enforcement. He said in a statement after the vote that ISPs routinely purge records, sometimes just days after they are created. “Investigators need the assistance of ISPs to identify users and distributors of online child pornography.

“This bill ensures that the online footprints of predators are not erased,” Smith said.

Civil liberties advocate Greg Nojeim, senior counsel for the Washington-based Center for Democracy and Technology told CNET, “This is China-style law enforcement, treating everyone as a potential suspect and requiring the collection of personal information just in case it might later be useful to the government.”

For a short time it appeared as though the bill would be derailed because of opposition from a handful of conservative members of Congress and Democrats advocating civil liberties and privacy.

And the original version of the bill, introduced in May, required ISPs to keep records for 18 months unless they were transmitted by “radio communication” prompted by the lobbying efforts of wireless carriers. But it was slapped down by the Justice Department who felt it didn’t go far enough and was removed in a revised draft.

A similar Senate version of the new measure — S. 1308 — was introduced in the Senate on June 30 by Utah Republican Orrin Hatch and co- sponsored by Republican Senators Charles Grassley of Iowa and Jeff Sessions of Alabama, and Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota.

Michael Powell, president of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, which represents ISPs including Comcast Corp. (CMCSA) and Time Warner Cable Inc. (TWC) said in a statement that the House Judiciary vote is an “important step” in the effort to fight child porn.

He said his organization will work with lawmakers to seek “further clarification that will produce reasonable retention practices that can aid law enforcement in stopping crimes against children.”

The existing "Protect Our Children Act of 2008" requires any ISP who "obtains actual knowledge" of possible child porn transmissions to "make a report of such facts or circumstances."

ISPs that knowingly fail to comply can be hit with fines of up to $150,000 for the first offense and up to $300,000 for each subsequent offense.