Political freedom imperiled online

January 24, 2002|By Patricia Schroeder and Richard White

WASHINGTON -- Optimists see in the Internet new opportunities for citizens who are disengaged from the political process to become involved in issue advocacy politics, election politics and interactions with state governments and the federal government through new e-government initiatives.

Yet the evolving story about the life of the Internet changed with Sept. 11, as did the evolving stories of everything else. The Internet was one of the tools the terrorists used to plan and execute the horrific acts of Sept. 11; it was also one of the key tools used by New Yorkers and others to communicate with loved ones on Sept. 11. So, too, has the Internet been used by the FBI in its investigation, by philanthropic organizations to raise money and by citizens to share their grief, insights and resolve.

What has yet to be appreciated is how our national struggle over the balance between the value of civil liberties and the value of national security involves the Internet in important ways.

Public awareness of the Internet dimensions of the struggle is needed now more than ever. The area that cries out for attention is privacy, indeed online privacy -- and online political privacy more than anything.

Considerable attention has been paid in the last few years to privacy, the Internet and commerce. Some attention has been paid to privacy, the Internet and the protection of children. Little if any attention has been paid to privacy, the Internet and politics.

The Bush administration has pushed for a number of major new restrictions on the scope of citizen privacy, whether off-line or online. The U.S.A. Patriot Act, which President Bush signed on Oct. 26, permits the FBI to monitor your e-mail if it suspects that you have committed a terrorist act or that you are planning to commit one.

It also gives the Justice Department the right to demand that Internet service providers (ISPs) log all traffic for particular customers.

Civil libertarians, including liberal Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, have challenged the administration, and Attorney General John Ashcroft in particular, on these new federal powers.

They fear that citizens who surf to controversial Web sites will be targeted by federal investigators and that this kind of targeting will chill free speech and political association.

This act is not openly addressed at curbing the cherished civil liberties of American citizens. Many of the suspects whose communications would be monitored by the FBI or CIA -- including e-mail -- would presumably reside in the United States but not even be American citizens.

But one of the key questions is whether the public is being naive about the potential targets of federal investigations, which could be any of us.

As the provisions of the act continue to be scrutinized -- which will presumably include some court challenges -- we must ask ourselves if the federal government might smother the democratizing potential of the Internet.

For it is through e-mail and information gained on a wide range of political Web sites that citizens are provided with new options for becoming politically informed and politically active.

For years, privacy advocates have warned against the abuses of big business; now we must return to the concern that animated the fight for the Bill of Rights and judge if the federal government is being given too much power.

We do not deny that new surveillance powers are needed by the federal government to track down terrorists. What we question is whether the Internet dimensions to our civil liberties have been adequately appreciated by the public.

Much of the discussion to date, even by Civil libertarians, has taken place in a 20th century context. But we do not live in that century any more. Sept. 11, 2001, was arguably the first real day of the new century.

We must find a way to harness the power of our 21st-century information technology in a way that enables us both to fight terrorism and to promote the free expression of ideas.

Patricia Schroeder and Richard White, former members of Congress, co-chair the Democracy Online Project's National Task Force.

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