Internet faces multiple challenges

Three separate initiatives could drastically alter how the Internet is run, affecting everyone who sends an email, purchases anything online or views a website.

One of these measures would boost privacy rights, another has pit Internet retailers against governments and brick-and-mortar stores — and against each other — and the third is an outright power grab by authoritarian governments.

One measure worthy of support is a proposal by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, to advance privacy of electronic communications. Under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 — still in the dawn of the Internet age — emails are guaranteed privacy only for six months, after which law-enforcement agencies need not obtain a warrant to access them.

These days, of course, with cloud computing and the prevalence of the Internet and Web in everyday lives, emails can be maintained for many years. So Leahy has proposed eliminating that six-month limit on privacy, making email and other electronic communications subject to the same rules as paper files.

Another push is under way to allow states to require Internet retailers to collect sales tax on online purchases. This effort has gathered steam in numerous states, and federal lawmakers are now getting in on the act. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, has authored an amendment to the Defense Authorization Act for fiscal 2013.

Many state and local governments view the Internet as one answer to budget woes. Amazon has come out in favor of a federal approach while fiercely opposing scattered state efforts. Ebay opposes the federal initiative, arguing that it would put small online retailers at a competitive disadvantage against larger companies such as Amazon.

The third initiative is one that freedom-loving individuals should reject out of hand: the effort by the International Telecommunications Union to create a new regulatory structure for the Internet, effectively giving authoritarian regimes far greater control over what transpires online. The effort is being discussed in Dubai this week at the 15-day World Conference on International Telecommunications, with U.S. attendees hoping to remove all references to the Internet from the agenda.

One can hope that the ITU effort will go nowhere, but it illustrates the constant threat posed by governments more concerned with control than freedom and privacy.

Here’s my take on these three efforts:

• Congress should pass Leahy’s measure to extend privacy protections to electronic communications more than six months old. A slam-dunk “yes.”

• Authorizing states to require Internet retailers to collect sales tax? I admit to being conflicted on this one. On the one hand, I’m sympathetic to the plight of state and local governments, as well as traditional retailers who see online sellers with an incredible advantage. On the other hand, we should do nothing to hamper one of the greatest technological innovations in history. The devil is in the details, but better a national approach than scattered state laws. A cautious “yes.”

• A new global bureaucracy to oversee the Internet, helping governments restrict the free flow of information more than they do now? Never.

Christopher Wood can be reached at 303-440-4950 or via email at cwood@bcbr.com.

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