Challenges to Internet Freedoms Remain With Anniversary of SOPA Defeat in the Books


A year ago Sunday, Congress shelved the Stop Online Privacy Act and the Protect IP Act after millions of concerned Internet users expressed outrage over a bill they believed threatened the freedom of the Internet.

The most memorable of those expressions of outrage against SOPA came a year ago Friday when a number of the most prominent websites, including Wikipedia and Reddit, participated in an Internet Blackout–urging users to reach out to their congressmen and senators to kill the bill.

In light of the recent death of dedicated Internet activist Aaron Swartz, who was found dead in his Brooklyn apartment a little more than a week ago, and the many threats to Internet freedom that still exist–techies, activists and users alike are guarded in their celebration of last year’s victories.

“What we’ve heard after last year is that in this legislative calendar, nobody really plans to address copyright enforcement…Even a year after the SOPA protests, it’s still considered toxic on The Hill,” Parker Higgins, an activist for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, tells the Voice. “That’s a good thing, but we also know that won’t last forever, and that it’s not an absolute either.”

Beyond the possibility of a renewed push for similar legislation, Higgins says he’s weary of private efforts to enforce strict copyright monitoring.

“Before the SOPA protests the [Recording Industry Association of America] hammered out a deal with five of the top [Internet Service Providers] to have a sort of private enforcement program…that’s going into effect very soon,” Higgins says. “We expect to see more of that as the copyright lobby wakes up to the fact that people are not going to put up with [overreaching censorship].”

He also highlighted the current fight to update the outdated Electronic Communications Privacy Act which currently allows law enforcement officials to access someone’s Internet communications, such as e-mails and instant messages, without a warrant.

The standard for this law was established in 1986–before the massive explosion of the Internet. As of now, law enforcement agencies can access online communications 180 days after they are published with only a subpoena.

An amended version of ECPA was passed through the Senate Judiciary Committee at the end of the last Congressional session, and supporters of the bill are hopeful it will be passed into law.

“What people need to know essentially is that there should be the same standard to search your inbox as there is to search your house,” Chris Calabrese, of the ACLU, tells the Voice. “We need to move those rights that we enjoy offline and make sure that we still have them in the online world.”

Calabrese says there’s a separate and very serious push to get similar protections for location tracking. Both the ACLU and the EFF are working to get enhanced location tracking protections in a world where cell phones and GPS systems provide constant insight into our location.

“There’s legislation this time in the House that has bi-partisan support that would require strong warrant protection before police could do location tracking,” Calabrese says. “So, there’s another area where we need to say ‘hey, the police couldn’t track us 24/7 before, and they shouldn’t be able to do it now.'”

As organizations such as the ACLU and the EFF continue to push for these important protections, we’ve already been told that the NSA has been keeping records on ALL of our online and cell phone communications already.

Amendments to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act following 9/11 helped allow the NSA to expand its surveillance of U.S. citizens. William Binney, former director of geopolitical and military analysis at the NSA, first spilled the beans on the agencies massive domestic data collection initiative back in 2011. Despite efforts against FISA, the Senate voted, and President Obama signed-off, to extend the Bush-era FISA amendments, which were scheduled to expire in December.

Despite, the mounting challenges to internet freedoms, Higgins is confident that important victories will be secured moving forward–as everyday citizens continue to wake up to internet censorship and privacy invasion threats.

“It’s really been encouraging in the past couple of years that through social media and through online news sources, people really do stay on top of [these issues],” he says. “And, I think that knowing that, and giving these companies and legislators and lobbyists the understanding that they’re going to be held accountable [is] important.”