WASHINGTON – Web experts warn that the investigation of disgraced former congressman Mark Foley's online conversations with teenagers may prompt legislation that compromises the privacy of Internet users.
“Already we can see the rumblings of legislation in Congress,” said Tim Lordan,executive director of the advisory committee to the Congressional Internet Caucus. “It's definitely going to color the debate.”
But parents of Web-browsing children should not view Foley as the classic example of an Internet predator,Lordan said.
“His interactions with these teenagers were begun with notes in the hallway,walks for ice cream down the street. I mean,he attended the pages' graduation,” he said.
Yet parental fear fueled by recent events could encourage legislators to push for more stringent Internet laws,Lordan said.
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and Rep. Diana DeGette,D-Colo.,are among public officials who support legislation that would require data retention,which would force Internet service providers to document and store all users' online activities.
“One thing we've continuously heard from state and local investigators and prosecutors is that many Internet Service Providers don't retain records for a sufficient period of time,” Gonzales told a Senate committee Sept. 19.
He said a department task force is working on the issue.
Gonzales' proposal represents an effort to use child porn as a political issue,said Ohio State University law Professor Peter Swire.
“By wrapping themselves in a so-called family values position,the administration tries to make surveillance of the communications of all Americans seem attractive,” said Swire,the former chief counselor for privacy in the Clinton administration.
Under this policy,ISPs would be forced to keep records of a user's every move indefinitely,from Web site postings to search engine queries,said Jim Harper,director of information policy studies at the Cato Institute,a nonprofit libertarian research foundation. Law enforcement officials could get access to those records,he predicted.
“Before too long,you have a serious surveillance system operating on all of us,” Harper said. “The data obtained by the data retention mandate will be used for all kinds of investigation. Law enforcement will switch from pursuing criminals … to pursuing people.”
The Department of Justice,which is investigating Foley and his correspondence with former House pages,feeds off parental concern by using the exaggerated statistics of experts,Harper said.
“They say child pornography is growing exponentially,” he said. “It is not growing exponentially. It's growing just like all online activity is growing,and as a percentage of online activity,it's probably not growing at all.”
The Justice Department released its “Project Safe Childhood Guide” in May,which stated,”Experts agree that the escalation in both the prevalence and severity of child pornography is driven at least in part by advances in computer technology and increased access to the Internet.”
Harper said that “experts are entirely given to hyperbole in making their case,and the Justice Department loves to use that to get what they want. The [Foley] case we've alluded to is boorish and gross behavior … but it wasn't horrific,and as far as we know at this point no one was physically harmed.”
The Electronic Communication Privacy Act of 1986 allows the government to request that ISPs preserve records of a suspect's Net activity for 90 days. Once a warrant or court order has been obtained,the company hands over the information. The law does not,however,require that ISPs keep permanent records of user activity,which is normally deleted after a certain period.
The Foley case points to a failure by law enforcement to act quickly rather than a need for stricter laws,said David Sobel,senior counsel for the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
“There seems to be dispute as to how long ago there was reason to be suspicious in this case,” Sobel said. “But clearly it sounds as if there was enough time to take appropriate steps to document whatever activities might have been occurring. … I think it's an illustration of the fact that the existing law would have been adequate if the appropriate steps had been taken in that case.”
Accountability should be placed on parents' shoulders,Harper said.
“The federal government cannot,will not and should not replace parents in protecting children,” he said. “Politicians who come forward and say,‘We're going to protect children this way,' are giving false hope to parents who should be stepping up themselves. Again and again I say it,put the computer in the living room,talk to your kids.”