Two new federal proposals that Republican supporters claim will protect children have alarmed Internet companies, who say the measures could make it a crime to provide e-mail.
The bills, each named the Internet Safety Act and announced at a press conference on Thursday, have mostly attracted attention for a sweeping requirement saying broadband providers and Wi-Fi access points must keep records on users for two years.
Another section of the legislation, however, is numbered 1960B. It says anyone employed at a provider who "knowingly engages in any conduct the provider knows or has reason to believe facilitates access to, or the possession of, child pornography" will be fined and imprisoned for not more than 10 years.
For Internet firms, the quandary is this: The mere provision of e-mail, electronic storage, cloud-computing services, and social-networking sites could be viewed as an act that "facilitates access to" illegal content, especially if the provider knows that some users in the past have been less than law-abiding. (And the threat of arrest, indictment, and imprisonment makes them unwilling to hope prosecutors interpret the language conservatively.)
"The legislation, as currently drafted, appears to raise the specter of imputing criminal liability on ISPs and others for the provision of routine services, such as e-mail," said Kate Dean, executive director of the U.S. Internet Service Provider Association, or US ISPA.
US ISPA's members include Verizon, Comcast, AOL, AT&T, and EarthLink.
(The relevant text explicitly mentions e-mail: "Whoever, being an Internet content hosting provider or e-mail service provider, knowingly engages in any conduct the provider knows or has reason to believe facilitates access to, or the possession of, child pornography...shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 10 years, or both.")
The pair of Texas Republicans who announced the proposal at a press conference on Thursday--Rep. Lamar Smith, the ranking member on the House Judiciary Committee, and Sen. John Cornyn--said it's necessary to protect children online. The Internet's "limitless nature offers anonymity that has opened the door to criminals looking to harm innocent children," Cornyn said.
In an opinion article published in the Dallas Morning News on Thursday, Smith defended his legislation by saying, "How many times have we seen TV detectives seek call logs of a suspect in order to determine who he has been talking to? What if the telephone companies simply said to the detectives, 'Sorry, we get rid of that information after 24 hours?'"
Neither Smith nor Cornyn responded to repeated inquiries from CNET News on Friday.
Two bills have been introduced so far--S.436 in the Senate and HR 1076 in the House. Each of the bills is titled "Internet Stopping Adults Facilitating the Exploitation of Today's Youth Act," or Internet Safety Act.