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Internet Safety Act: Rashomon in real time?


Critics of anti-child porn act may not be reading the bills


'Net Insider By Scott Bradner , Network World , 02/24/2009


From what you read in the trade press and blogosphere, you would think that Sen. John Cornyn and Rep. Lamar Smith have decided to use the excuse of fighting child pornography to attack the Internet itself.


The two Texas Republicans introduced the Internet Stopping Adults Facilitating the Exploitation of Today's Youth (SAFETY) Act of 2009 into the Senate and House on Feb. 19. As soon as the bills were introduced, the techie community exploded, starting with a story on CNN's Web site and continuing with dozens of stories in various places. But it looks like many of the reporters did not actually read the bill, decided to be rather selective in their coverage or, reminiscent of characters in the classic Japanese film Rashomon, do not see the same thing when they look at something.


The bills themselves are anti-child porn bills. This is not a case like we have seen in the past where someone was using an anti-child porn veneer to hide an Internet data retention bill. Seven of the eight sections are aimed directly and uniquely at people who knowingly distribute or assist in the distribution of child porn. Three sections deal with increasing penalties for child porn-related activities. One might legitimately doubt the effectiveness of the specific provisions in the international world of the Internet, but anyone who actually reads the bills will have to admit that these are anti-child porn focused.


The one provision not aimed directly and uniquely at purveyors of child porn is unlikely to provide much if any help tracking down any child porn purveyor with half a clue or with access to anyone with half a clue. The provision reads:


"A provider of an electronic communication service or remote computing service shall retain for a period of at least two years all records or other information pertaining to the identity of a user of a temporarily assigned network address the service assigns to that user."


CNN, and then just about everybody else, interpreted this to mean that anyone who enabled any type of Internet access, including people with Wi-Fi access points in their homes, would have to start keeping records of their DHCP and keep the records for two years. The bills' authors have not said anything that supports such a conclusion.


A strict reading of the text does not support such a conclusion either. The text says that a "provider of an electronic communication service or remote computing service" has to retain the records they might have that pertain to the "identity of a user" of a DHCP assigned address. The text does not actually say you have to create any such logs, it only talks about retaining logs you already have.


No home Wi-Fi access point that I know of creates logs of DHCP assignments by default, and I suspect that few could be configured to create such a log even if you wanted to do so. Thus, it seems to be a misplaced fear to conclude that this bill will require me to create and keep a log from my home AirPort access point.


Clearly commercial ISPs and likely private enterprises that offer Internet access and have systems that create DHCP logs would have to retain them under this bill, but it's quite clear that the biggest effect would be an invasion of users' privacy rather than an effective way to catch criminals. Any criminal worth their salt knows, or soon would find out, that it's easy to spoof media access control addresses and become someone else in the log.


Obviously, this is not an effective way to catch child porn purveyors and I hope it gets dropped if these bills go anywhere, but it helps the discourse if the people who are complaining acknowledge the full context of what they are complaining about.


Disclaimer: A Harvard student who cherry-picked part of a topic like this would not get a good grade, but I've not seen a university grade for the reporters (or the legislators) involved, so the above discussion is my own.


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