Privacy Takes Another Hit

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Political junkies are used to watching trends begin on the West Coast and move East over time. This year, given the time zone difference and the national media’s rush to call the national election, the actual election results from the West Coast became a mere afterthought. It’s taken almost two weeks for the New York Times and other national media to pay attention to an incredibly troubling result in California.

As part of the “tough on crime, tough on criminals” movement, California voters have approved Proposition 35, a ballot initiative that, in a nutshell, will increase prison sentences and fines for human trafficking convictions. It also requires convicted traffickers to register as sex offenders and for all sex offenders to disclose their Internet identities and activities. Now, almost no one is in favor of human trafficking, for sex or any other kind of forced labor. But the definition of “trafficking” is both controversial and contentious. Is a prostitute a trafficker? Her pimp? The owner of an adult sex and games store? What about their children who profit from their success? More important, who will decide?

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Regardless of who ends up skewered as a sex offender, those California citizens listed on the nation’s oldest and largest sex offender registry must now inform authorities of their e-mail addresses, user names, and other Internet identifiers, as well as report any changes within twenty-four hours. Failure to comply could result in punishment of three years in prison. A conviction and its applicability to California’s three strike laws seem inevitable. Like offenders elsewhere in the nation, the normal activities of listed offenders have been increasingly restricted in recent years as communities bar them from not only schoolyards and playgrounds but beaches, libraries, and other public places. Proposition 35 brings these restrictions to cyberspace.

The ACLU has already challenged the new law and a federal judge has issued a temporary injunction. The law’s ultimate fate will be decided by the courts, but it represents the electorate’s willingness to infringe on the rights of perceived sex offenders regardless of whether their offense had anything to do with children or the Internet. Draconian laws in Louisiana and Indiana prohibit any use of the Internet by any type of sex offender. Nonetheless, the California law is still described as one of the nation’s broadest in requiring online information for all sex offenders regardless of the severity of the crime or its link to the Internet — This from the state where most Internet companies are based, as well as some of the nation’s fiercest advocates of online freedom.

The ACLU’s argument that the law is unconstitutional focuses on the breadth of the law. It applies to all sex offenders many of whom were convicted of offenses that had little to do with the Internet. Also at issue is the First Amendment right to speak anonymously. They claim that offenders cannot engage in pure speech about government without identifying themselves to the police.

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Individuals who have committed crimes have long been the “whipping boys” of self-righteous politicians who have targeted previous offenders as proof of their toughness on crime. Over thirty thousand laws are on this nation’s books that restrict individuals who have paid their debt to society. These restrictions apply to all aspects of someone’s life including voting, housing, and employment. Many of these restrictions are in effect life sentences despite any connection to the original offense. In today’s environment, “paid in full” seems to have little meaning with regard to our justice system.

Laws establishing registries of sex offenders vary from state to state. Who is required to register also varies from those who have committed heinous crimes such as rape or child abuse to prostitutes, streakers and old men wearing raincoats. In some states the mere allegation of a sex offense may land you on the list. Vengeful neighbors can wreak havoc with your reputation. Occasionally, unsuspecting persons trying to see who is on the list have found their own names on the registry. Imagine waking up one morning and discovering that due to some administrative error, false claim, or your teenager surfing the Internet, your name is on a list of sex offenders and subject to the consequences. Some state laws do not contain provisions that enable a person’s name to be removed in any case. Like most human endeavors, lists and registries, begun with every good intention, are easily subverted by abuse or error.

Can’t get worked up about the about the privacy rights of purported sex-offenders?” Better watch out– A Senate proposal touted as protecting Americans’ e-mail privacy has been quietly rewritten, giving government agencies more surveillance power than they already possess under current law.

Patrick Leahy, the influential Democratic chairman of the Senate Judiciary committee, has dramatically reshaped his legislation in response to law enforcement concerns. A vote on his bill, which now authorizes warrantless access to Americans’ e-mail, is scheduled for next week.

Leahy’s rewritten bill would allow more than 22 agencies — including the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Federal Communications Commission — to access Americans’ e-mail, Google Docs files, Facebook wall posts, and Twitter direct messages without a search warrant. It also would give the FBI and Homeland Security more authority, to gain full access to Internet accounts without notifying either the owner or a judge.

Think about it-who’ll be reading your e-mail or following your Amazon account next year? What about your on-line purchases at Victoria’s Secret?