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A Short History of U.S. Internet Legislation

3756880888_88b531ab0bIf you’ve been following the news recently, you may have heard a lot about the US government’s PRISM program, led by the NSA. There has been a lot of talk about what the government can and cannot do (or will and will not do) under PRISM, and — frankly — a lot of fear as well.

But PRISM is not a US law, it is a government surveillance program built on US laws. To fully understand what kinds of digital information the U.S. government is capable of gathering and analyzing, and under what circumstances, we need to look at the various laws enacted over the years that govern law enforcement in the digital age.

Remember when ServInt was fighting to defeat SOPA and PIPA? Those bills were associated with an attempt to legislate the Internet in some potentially very destructive ways. But SOPA and PIPA are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to legislation you should know about if you make your living on the Internet. Some proposed laws pose serious risks to the basic concept of a free and open Internet, while others are quite well designed and deserve your full support.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be walking you through four major legislative initiatives and their associated amendments to give you a background on what legislation you should be aware of as an informed citizen and Internet business owner. Specifically, we’ll look at:

The basis of Internet law enforcement: the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986

Written before the birth of the commercial Internet, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) a key law that both protects privacy, and enables law enforcement access to data.

Safe harbor and the proliferation of the commercial Internet: the DMCA and CDA

In this second post we’ll fast forward a decade to look at some of the most important Internet legislation yet written. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act and the Communications Decency Act have their detractors, but they laid the foundation for the free and open Internet that we enjoy today. Want to know why the Internet has changed the world? Look no further than the Safe Harbor provision of the DMCA and Section 230 of the CDA.

Privacy on the Internet

Next we’ll look at privacy, paying specific attention to surveillance and monitoring on the Internet. We’ll delve into various laws that define the way law enforcement can watch what we do online. These include the Stored Communications Act, the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act, the USA PATRIOT Act, and the FISA Amendments Act.

User Protections and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act

Finally, we’ll take a close look at Internet user protections in light of the Computer Fraud & Abuse Act, which has actually been used to prosecute breaking a Terms of Service agreement or AUP on the Internet as a federal crime. This was the basis for the prosecution of Aaron Swartz, who committed suicide earlier this year after facing up to 50 years in prison for allegedly taking public documents that were behind a pay wall and putting them on a torrent server as an act of civil disobedience.

So join us on the ServInt Source in the coming weeks as we explore a short history of Internet legislation and the possible futures we have in store.

Photo by Mr. T in DC

About Christian Dawson

Christian Dawson has been with ServInt since 1998 and has helped it grow into one of the most innovative Cloud providers in the world. As ServInt's COO, he has spearheaded its green initiative, and drives ServInt's efforts in fighting for customer privacy and consumer protections. He does so in part as co-founder and Chairman of the industry trade association, the Internet Infrastructure Coalition (i2Coalition). You can find him on Google+ and Twitter.

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