Congress was apparently busy on Wednesday moving forward with incredibly bad laws that are designed to look good to certain constituents, but are highly questionable in real terms. We already discussed the new PRO IP bill, but the House also rushed through approval of the SAFE Act, which is one of those ridiculous bills that everyone feels compelled to vote for to "protect the children." Only two Representatives voted against the bill (and, yes, for his fans, one of them was Ron Paul). As Declan McCullough's report makes clear, the backers of this bill rushed it through Congress for no clear reason. They used a procedural trick normally reserved for non-controversial laws -- and made significant changes from an earlier version, never making the new version available for public review prior to the vote.
So what's so awful about the law? Well, like most "protect the children" legislation, it goes way overboard in terms of what people are expected to do, and like most legislation having to do with technology, seems utterly clueless about how technology works. The bill would require anyone providing an "electronic communication service" or a "remote computing service" to record and report information any time they "learn" that their network was used for certain broadly defined illegal activities concerning obscene images. That's double trouble, as both the illegal activities and the classification of who counts as a service provider are so broadly defined. McCullough notes that anyone providing an open WiFi network, a social network, a domain registry or even a webmail service probably qualify under the law. Glenn Fleishman describes what the law could mean in practice, points out that anyone who runs an open WiFi network for the public is now basically required to snitch on anyone they think may be doing anything deemed "illegal" in this act, including viewing or transmitting certain obscene drawings, cartoons, sculptures, or paintings. As Fleishman notes, it "sounds like viewing an Abercrombie and Fitch catalog could qualify." Even worse, part of the snitching is that beyond sending a report and the images to the gov't, you're supposed to retain the "illegal" image yourself -- which would seem to open you up to charges of possession as well if you somehow screw up (if you follow everything exactly to the letter of the law, you are granted immunity).
If you don't snitch on anyone suspected of viewing or transmitting these images, then you, as the network "operator" are suddenly liable for huge fines. Honestly, the liability is so big that anyone offering WiFi is probably better off no longer doing so. This is one of those laws that politicians love to pass, because they think it makes them look like they're protecting children -- when all they're really doing is creating a huge and unnecessary headache for all kinds of service providers, from open WiFi operators to social networking sites to webmail offerings. But, of course, it moves forward -- with no public scrutiny and no discussion -- because almost no politician wants to allow a politician to accuse him or her of voting "against" protecting the children.