Three Acts of the United States that Protect – or Restrict – Your Internet Privacy

By | October 7, 2011

When it comes to the Internet, many people have two words for the government: butt out.

In hindsight, it’s easy to see how the government can be uncertain as to how to regulate the Web. The technology seemed to spring up overnight, and these quick changes to our daily lifestyle immediately brought up new questions. Is the Internet a place that should always be anonymous and how far should the government go to protect – or restrict – our privacy?

Obviously these are complex issues. But if you’re an Internet user who wants the government to butt out and need to study up on your “Internet rights” so to speak, then you’ll have to know about the laws that are already on the books. That’s why we’re going to explain three Congressional Acts of the United States that work to protect your Internet privacy.

Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA)

If you don’t like government regulations on the Internet, you still might find yourself glad that this one exists. The Electronic Communications Privacy Act essentially restricts Internet Service Providers (ISPs) from viewing your private communications, such as email, with certain exceptions. Now, the idea of “exceptions” might not sound very kosher when it comes to Internet privacy, but at least certain privacy protections are in place thanks to this law.

One of these exceptions is reasonable in that it allows ISPs to disclose private communications if granted the permission of the person who sent the email. Unfortunately, private information can be accessed via court order, which means that you’ll still want to be careful about sensitive information you communicate online, however benign the recipient might seem to you.

USA Patriot Act

The Patriot Act is perhaps the most infamous of all the congressional measures that changed the face of the Internet, but not necessarily because of the fact that it loosened restrictions on government invasion into Internet privacy. The Patriot Act also dealt with phone calls, medical records and financial records in addition to email.

The goal behind the USA Patriot Act is obviously well-intentioned: protecting the domestic United States from terrorism. After all, hunting down and catching terrorists can be difficult if you don’t have any information to go on. But many people have a problem with exchanging privacy for security, which is what makes this Act of Congress so highly controversial. While some people feel that they have nothing to hide from the government, others want to hide even innocent activity from the government.

Communications Decency Act (CDA)

One of the earliest acts of Congress aimed at legislating what goes on the Internet, this regulation took aim at obscenity online as well as what could be referred to as “indecency.” Though part of this act was found unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, the lasting legacy of the rest of the law protects people who run Internet services from being liable for what goes on with third parties who use those services. It also gives Internet Services Providers certain authorities to make sure that obscenity is regulated in some way, as each ISP decides.

What can we learn from the acts of Congress? Here are a few bullet points to keep in mind:

  • Privacy on the Internet is still widespread, but it’s not guaranteed. You should always be careful about what information you trust to the Internet – whether you fear private parties coming across your information or the government coming across it. Be vigilant in protecting your anonymity and privacy at all times.
  • A good rule of thumb for using the Internet is to imagine that someone is watching you. Though the Internet can seem like a good place to hide your secrets, you’d be surprised what ordinary people can find out about you, let alone any government entity that’s interested in learning more about your behavior.
  • Keep an eye out for new legislation regarding privacy on the Internet. As the Internet gets older and Congress slowly starts adding new regulations, it will be important to monitor exactly what you can and can’t do online – whether you’re a casual Internet user or someone highly involved with the web, such as an ISP.
  • Though the Internet is highly useful, beware of storing so much of your life’s work and entertainment online that you wouldn’t be able to live the same life you currently do without the Internet.  After all, even if your privacy is protected, it’s still good for you to unplug the machine and get out in the real world once in a while. The less you depend on the Internet, the less your privacy concerns need worry you.

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