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U.S. Justice Dept. Officials Continue Push for Increased Net-Monitoring

U.S. Justice Dept. Officials Continue Push for Increased Net-Monitoring 0001

The rights of online poker players came under an additional, if indirect, threat on Wednesday when FBI Director Robert Mueller called on Internet service providers to record and store records of their customers' online activities to a greater degree than that currently mandated by law. The move, part of the greater battle between governmental control and the freedom and flow of information that the Internet represents, is likely to trigger fierce debate as privacy and law-enforcement concerns butt heads in a legal battle that's now expected to occur early in 2007.

The end-of-session flurry of activity precluded such a user-monitoring measure from being enacted in recent weeks, although the U.S. Justice Department did try to sneak it by in a manner similar to that used for the passage of the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act [UIGEA]. According to a article, 'Justice Department officials admit privately that data retention' [the term used for the proposed practice] 'legislation is controversial enough that there wasn't time to ease it through the U.S. Congress before politicians left to campaign for re-election.'

Data retention, as proposed by FBI Director Mueller, various states' attorneys general and legislators such as Colorado's U.S. representative Diane DeGette, takes one of two forms. The first is to require ISPs, 'social' network sites and search engines to log and store for a year or two the identifying IP [Internet Protocol] address of each user. The second proposed form is broader and even more offensive to civil-liberties purists, requiring companies to record and store the identities of e-mail correspondents, instant-messaging logs and users, and the addresses of web pages visited.

As expected, the Justice Department seized on the extreme examples of Internet misuse to justify the erosion of civil liberties, citing child pornography, terrorism and money laundering. Readers will remember that last item used as justification for the UIGEA's passage as well, despite the fact that documented cases of massive revenues from an online poker site being part of a laundered-money scheme, as of this date, number exactly zero.

What's ignored is the fact that technologies already exist to circumvent much of the control that data-retention legislation is designed to put in place, and it's a safe bet that the more egregious the violators, the more likely they are --- as a group --- to use these already existing tools. One example is that of anonymizing web browsers, such as Torpark, which re-route or otherwise obfuscate an Internet user's real identity; these browsers are certainly in use by criminal elements but are gaining a much wider mainstream audience, a direct response to some of the extreme freedom-restricting measures being enacted by the U.S. and a few other governments.

Few online poker players realize that the ISP-blocking provisions of the UIGEA are already of little value should an online player choose to circumvent then. Poker sites already exist that are based on Shockwave Flash technology, and when one combines the way these sites work with the data-encrypting capabilities of a Torpark-style web browser, the IP addresses of both the user and the online site are encrypted and never make it to the point at the user's home ISP where address blocking would occur.

It's true, though, that this type of technical workaround would take significant time to penetrate down to the average player, if it ever became a standard method at all. Many players lack the technical comprehension to understand how and why these things work, while another player population --- mostly casual players --- are unlikely to ever go to the bother.

Data-retention laws make common sense on the surface, as no one wants to see child pornographers or terrorists using the Internet for such purposes. However, it's the making of data storage mandatory, imposing such extreme time requirements --- up to two years --- and the forcing of yet another non-funded mandate onto the private sector that has freedom-of-information defenders up in arms.

It's a situation with no easy answer, and more countries than just the U.S. are wrestling with what is almost universally viewed by governments as the need for Internet control. No matter the form that the data-retention legislation takes, it's sure to spark a hot debate, and this time online poker players have a vested interest in determining where the line between supervision and censorship should be drawn.

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