The Law on Internet Time

What gives programmers and businesspeople confidence in facing government today is the assumption that the law (and cops) can’t work on Internet time.

It may be time to challenge that assumption.

In Washington, Sen. Jon Kyl (R.-Ariz.) is trying to get through a new law that will give law enforcement all the powers of the very hackers they’re trying to fight. S. 2092, co-sponsored by New York Democrat Charles Schumer, would give cybercops unprecedented power to “track and trace” Internet hacks. No more going for search warrants each time a call crosses a border (even an international one).

Evidence first, permission later it’s a short step from there to trial first, charge later. But then we already have trial by machine for drugs, paternity, and anything else DNA might touch, so why should the Internet be any different?

Of course what’s good for the hacker is good for the multibillionaire. Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson now hopes to wrap up the Microsoft trial (and appeals) this summer. That’s long before a President George W. Bush can come into office and change the government’s mind about the anti-trust laws. IBM’s battle with the Justice Department over its mainframe dominance lasted 30 years. This could go less than 30 months, even including last year’s civil trial that turned Gigadollar Bill into a corporate O.J.

Some privacy advocates this week were in Toronto calling “whoa” to this big time. The Tenth Computers, Freedom and Privacy Conference featured Privacy Journal editor Robert Ellis Smith suggesting that maybe public records are too public when they’re available online.

Russell Fish of Openrecords.org strongly disagreed. Among the goodies he’s unearthed are lists of Texas insurance complaints, which can now follow the offenders to the grave. At APBNEws anyone can now see celebrities’ mug shots and they’re trying (so far unsuccessfully) to open up judges’ public disclosure records to online search. (Take THAT, Judge Jackson.)

All this may put a recent decision by the Supreme Court, also reported by APB, in a completely new light. In Public Citizen vs. Carlin, (Case No. 99-782), the Supremes let stand, without comment, a law that lets government destroy electronic records so long as paper copies are kept somewhere.

All of which means that old rules are in the process of being reversed. Paper records were bad because they were subject to a search warrant, while electronic records could be squirreled away. But now paper records are good because electronic records can be indexed. (Sounds like a bad day for trees.)

All these are complex, difficult questions of privacy both yours and that of your government that will determine the kind of century we have. I’d much rather hear Bush and Gore weigh in on this kind of stuff than anything else they’re likely to discuss between now and November. But I’m betting this is the very last word you’ll read on the subject.

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