Civil Liberties Group Asks Obama for Tech Changes

U.S. President-elect Barack Obama has a lot of work to do on technology issues when he takes office, with changes needed to protect consumer privacy online and to limit government surveillance powers, a privacy and civil liberties advocacy group said Tuesday.

The Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) also called on Obama to keep the Internet free of many regulations and from network interference by broadband providers. The CDT asked for significant changes to the nation's technology policies in a 46-page memo to the president-elect's transition team.

"It is crucial to keep the Internet open, innovative and free," said Leslie Harris, CDT's president and CEO. "Policymakers often view the Internet as the source of problems that require restrictions on the Internet, rather than the enabler of democracy and economic growth."

CDT sees Obama as a tech-savvy president who understands the power of an open Internet, Harris said. Several privacy and civil liberties groups view Obama as a potential ally after eight years of what they consider questionable civil liberties decisions by President George Bush's administration. Obama called for net neutrality rules, improved e-government efforts and a national broadband plan in a tech policy paper released more than a year ago.

The CDT hopes Obama will do a better job of balancing national security and civil liberties, said Jim Dempsey, CDT's vice president for public policy. "It's clear to us that things are not going to get worse," he said. "How they get better remains to be seen."

Last week, media reform group Free Press released its own list of goals for the Obama administration, with net neutrality and universal broadband among the group's top priorities.

In many cases, the CDT has asked Obama to roll back surveillance programs and closed-records actions of Bush's administration. The CDT called on Obama and the U.S. Congress to place more restrictions on surveillance programs in the Patriot Act, legislation passed shortly after the terrorist attacks on the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001.

The CDT called for more restrictions on the use of the Patriot Act-authorized national security letters, which allow the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation to seek sensitive information from banks, credit card companies, Internet service providers and other businesses. The FBI has failed to follow the few regulations placed on the national security letter program, CDT officials said.

Members of the Bush administration have argued that the Patriot Act and government surveillance programs are essential for protecting the U.S. against terrorism.

In addition, the CDT asked Obama to rescind a 2001 memo from former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft instructing federal agencies to seek to generally withhold information from citizens filing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. Under President Bill Clinton's administration, agencies were instructed to turn over information unless it would result in "foreseeable harm."

The group also called for Congress to pass net neutrality legislation that would prohibit broadband providers from degrading or blocking network traffic, even though the U.S. Federal Communications Commission took action against Comcast in August for slowing some BitTorrent peer-to-peer traffic.

Comcast has challenged the FCC ruling in court, and the FCC's actions raise concerns about broader Internet regulation, but a new law could be narrowly focused on net neutrality, said David Sohn, CDT's senior policy counsel.

"The jurisdictional basis of the FCC's decision seems to imply a really broad and elastic concept, with the FCC essentially being able to step in and do whatever it thinks would be good for the Internet," Sohn said. "We think that's a dangerous precedent."

Comcast and other broadband providers have questioned whether a net neutrality law is needed. Providers need to manage their networks to ensure quality service, and an overly restrictive rule would discourage investment in new high-speed networks, net neutrality opponents have argued.

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