WiFi spy bill isn’t Net nirvana—but isn’t as bad as CNET said (updated)

bigbrother "The U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday overwhelmingly approved a bill saying that anyone offering an open Wi-Fi connection to the public must report illegal images including 'obscene' cartoons and drawings--or face fines of up to $300,000." - CNET.

The TeleRead take: After posting an earlier version of this item, I found a much better article  by Nate Anderson at Ars Technica, which makes clear that the present bill doesn't require wireless providers to go out of their way to look for such images. CNET columnist Declan McCullagh was out of date or more likely applied or picked up some spin. As Nick has pointed out, the bill does not specifically mention wireless. I'm surprised that Declan, a specialist in privacy issues, didn't represent the bill better. A little libertarian ideology at work here? I prefer to link to source material, and this is a case where that would have helped.

The e-book angle: That said, the bill (aimed at child porn) could be a wedge in the future for something more restrictive and meanwhile still raises questions about its language even now. What’s more, will future legislation require aggressive surveillance? What kind of porn might other versions deliberately cover? Will text eventually be involved? And could this mean e-books?

Related: Bush goes private to spy on you, via AlterNet and NewsTrust. The headline could be a bit over the top. Still, as the Nixon administration showed, it’s hard enough to control the activities of government agencies even without the use of private contractors.

Caveat: No need to take to the barricades in the literal sense! The erosion of civil liberties, including those associated with the Net and e-books, can be a very slow process. But it bears watching—and complaining about.

4 Comments on WiFi spy bill isn’t Net nirvana—but isn’t as bad as CNET said (updated)

  1. It might help to read the bill itself, rather than how it’s being spun. The bill adds a legal requirement to report ‘obscene’ images to a government agency if you discover them, but doesn’t require you to go out of your way to find them. It applies equally to wired and wireless; the wireless angle is being spun by people terrified that they’ll be held responsible for what someone else viewed over their wireless link, which isn’t the case.

    All of which isn’t to say the bill is a good thing anyway. It was rushed through, and its vague mandate covers way more than the child pornography it was aimed at.

  2. Congress is great at passing these vague kind of laws.

    Is there really an epidemic of people who are refusing to report kiddie porn to the local authorities?

    BTW, the Supreme Court ruled a few years ago that cartoon images could not be obscene.

  3. Nick, thanks. The CNet story either used out-of-date information or didn’t give all the facts or the right ones. A better account is at Ars Technica. Actual text of the bill is here. In the present form of the bill, I see no reference to wireless. I’m going to update the item. Big thanks. David

  4. The law is a very bad idea, but Declan as usual overstates the nature of it.

    The problem is it requires people to report any “obscene” materials as well, but like “fair use”, “obscene” is whatever a court says it is. So if I don’t think a given image is obscene but a federal court later decides it is, then I’m potentially facing fines of $150K per incident. So if I wanted to protect myself, I have to report pretty much anything that comes anywhere in the neighborhood.

    For example, take underground comics. Zap#4 was ruled obscene in New York in 1974, but is today sold there and elsewhere without prosecutions. So if I see my neighbor using my open wifi to download a copy of Zap#4 on the Internets, do I have a duty to report?

    Frankly, I’d remove obscenity as a legal barrier to free speech altogether. The only speech that should be banned are those that involve criminal acts to produce or are themselves simply means to criminal acts, such as child pornography, incitements to murder, etc.

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