In the most recent effort to thwart child predators online, both the U.S. House and Senate are considering bills that would require any Internet access provider -- possibly including public Wi-Fi hotspots -- to retain Internet user data for up to two years.
The bills, S.436 in the Senate and H.R.1076 in the House, are both titled "Internet Stopping Adults Facilitating the Exploitation of Today's Youth Act of 2009" or the "SAFETY Act" and state that "a provider of an electronic communication service or remote computing service shall retain for a period of at least two years all records or other information pertaining to the identity of a user of a temporarily assigned network address the service assigns to that user."
What that means is that every coffee shop, hotel, office building, airport, or any other location that provides Internet service would be required to hold onto the access data of every person that used that hotspot or hard-wired connection for up to two years. Of course, this also applies to all the big Internet service providers like Comcast and AT&T, but they have the database resources to keep that information, resources that your average independent coffee shop probably lacks. Starbucks cuts deals with major ISPs like T-Mobile and AT&T, so presumably those services would store the surfing history.
No one is defending child predators, but obviously a big issue with this bill is the matter of privacy. True, ISPs and public access points will only be retaining Internet access data, but this presents a very slippery slope as to what can be done with that data. I can see this bill easily snowballing into larger issues jeopardizing Net Neutrality.
But what I wonder most about is the effectiveness of this bill. It seems to me all that will be retained is the identity of who was using a dynamic IP address at a particular time. The bill is ambiguous enough that it may not include any information about that person's activity, which seems to me a crucial part of determining whether someone is engaging in illegal activities. So ISPs and hotspots will be keeping a detailed record of who is using the Internet and when, but what that person is doing, potentially the most important part, is left out.
Come on, if the government is going to invade our privacy to stop sexual predators, I'd at least like them to do so in a more productive way.