Worries arise about possible government monitoring of social media

Nov 1 2010 - 1:37pm

Under new legislation being devised by the Obama administration, the government would be able to listen in on all your Internet communications -- Twitter, Facebook, Skype and others.

The administration plans to propose to Congress legislation that would require all companies with products allowing Internet communication to build in a back door to their encryption. That way the government could quickly monitor conversations.

This would, for the first time, bring peer-to-peer communications services such as Facebook and Skype under the same government surveillance requirements imposed on telecoms by the 1994 Communications Assistance to Law Enforcement Act.

Court authorization would still be required.

All of this is, of course, in the name of fighting crime and preventing terrorism, in a time when technology is advancing so quickly that the government is falling behind in its ability to crack communications of terrorists and criminals.

In another strengthening of the 1994 law, the government would prevent companies that already are subject to wiretapping orders, like telecoms, from making changes to their systems that would disrupt intercepting calls.

The FBI says it spends $20 million a year to restore wiretapping to systems that have been upgraded.

"The government's answer is 'don't deploy the new services -- wait until the government catches up,' " said Albert Gidari, a lawyer for telecoms. "But that's not how it works. Too many services develop too quickly, and there are just too many players in this now."

Critics say legislation like this would be dangerous and futile.

While catching criminals and preventing terrorism is important, weakening weakening every citizens' privacy is not the way to do it, they say. And requiring a telecom to worry about violating a law every time it upgrades its network chills innovation.

Another bill before the Senate is the Combating Online Infringements and Counterfeits Act. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, the preeminent online rights organization, says although the bill "is ostensibly focused on copyright infringement, an enormous amount of non-infringing content, including political and other speech, could disappear off the Web if it passes."

The main mechanism of the bill is to interfere with the Internet's domain name system, which translates names like "www.post-gazette.com" into a form that computers use to display sites.

The bill creates a blacklist of censored domains. The attorney general can ask a court to place any website on the blacklist if infringement is "central" to the purpose of the site.

According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, "If this bill passes, the list of targets could conceivably include hosting websites such as Dropbox, MediaFire and Rapidshare; MP3 blogs and mashup/remix music sites such as SoundCloud, MashupTown and Hype Machine; and sites that discuss and make the controversial political and intellectual case for piracy.

"Indeed, had this bill been passed five or 10 years ago, YouTube might not exist today."

The foundation points out that there are already laws and procedures in place for taking down sites that violate the law. This act would allow the attorney general to censor sites even when no court has found they have infringed copyright or any other law.

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.scrippsnews.com.)

 

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