This link points to an article that describes a potential bill to be introduced by US Rep. Diana DeGette (D-CO). As much as I hate child pornography, I cannot tolerate such an invasion of privacy as described in this article. As the concept is described, it is not limited to retention of records of people vising child pornography web sites. In fact, it doesn’t appear to be limited at all.
I see this as another example of well intentioned people without any real understanding of technology crafting a solution that forces a conflict between values important to this country. What appears to have happened in this case, as in so many others, is that those involved in public policy have failed to clearly delineate the problem they are trying to solve. Further, they have failed to put enough effort into finding a solution - and, as a result, have come up with a solution that in fact does not solve the problem, but does create other ones.
Keeping track of everything everyone sees on the Internet won’t stop child pornography. But it may be used to get people in trouble when they stumble onto a site unintentionally. And it reduces this country to a place little different than China in terms of the level of government watchers looking over our shoulders.
Let’s keep in mind what the real goal is here: To stop the distribution of this filth. Prosecuting users after the fact is limited by the resources required for prosecution. So keeping records, even to aid the prosecution, is at best imperfect.
A more appropriate solution would be to simply create a national registry that tracks child porn sites and require that all ISPs block those sites. This list can be easily distributed using an RSS feed (that’s not the only way to do it, but I wanted to give an example that most people can understand). And since every ISP already has the technology to block requests geographically - this has already been demonstrated in such cases as Yahoo and the sale of Nazi-related items1, it wouldn’t be difficult for them to check this list before honoring the request. Keep in mind that the producers of child porn are a much smaller number than the consumers2. Blocking access to those sites would make it more difficult for people to consume - which is really what we want. Further, this can be done under the auspices of any law that outlaws the distribution of child pornography (since that’s exactly what happens when you honor an http request).
Granted, blocking access in this country won’t necessarily result in no access at all to child porn. However, since we aren’t talking about interdicting just hosting, but also blocking http requests, the effect would be to block not only child porn hosted in this country, but to block child porn hosted ANYWHERE. While this isn’t a complete solution, it raises the level of effort required to get around the ban, which, in turn, limits the number of people who will attempt to do so3. Moreover, since child porn is illegal in EVERY country, it would be relatively simple to convince other governments to follow our lead, and even use our database. As more and more countries adopt this approach it would become harder for child pornographers to find a place to hide.
We should also keep in mind this same mechanism can be used to block ANYTHING. This means we must be careful what gets blacklisted4. Our country is vibrant because we constantly seek to limiting the limits of freedom. To the degree that we can preclude things with no positive value, while limiting the impact on things such as free speech, to that degree we can flourish in freedom. If we fail to find that balance, we can easily create a chilling effect that will cause people to censor everything in an attempt to censor the bad and marginal - and destroy the creativity that makes the country great. We need only look at the former Soviet Union to see what happens when people live in a censored society.
1. eBay, Amazon avoid French knot
2. Statistics on Porn & Sex Addiction
3. While I could outline several ways to get around this, I see no reason to make it easier for anyone.
4. The Chinese would just as soon use it to block access to websites dealing with freedom, democracy and the like (Oh wait - they already do that…).