Even as the Internet keeps growing and evolving, the fallout from major regulations expected in 2013 threaten to change its very nature.
The dust has yet to settle in the wake of the contentious International Telecommunications Union's (ITU) conference in Dubai, but its repercussions could spit the Internet into two parts: One free and open one, the other closed and censored, depending on which country you are in. Even here in the U.S., pending legislation could further challenge how citizens communicate online and via phone, and how and by whom those communications be me monitored and retrieved.
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While the ITU treaty isn't legally binding, it sets a precedent and tone for Internet regulation, warned Ambassador Terry Kramer. Diverging opinions on Internet governance, content regulation and network security forced the United States to refuse to support it (see 5 Reasons Why The U.S. Rejected The ITU Treaty).
Bottom line, giving sovereign nations the ability to manage and monitor the Internet could result in a splintering of the Web. "The Internet could break up into a series of smaller Internets," said Sean Sullivan, a security advisor for F-Secure Labs. Sullivan echoed Ambassador Kramer's rhetoric about autocratic regimes wishing to take more control of the Internet, "to shift control of the Internet from the geeks, and give it to governments."
Still, it's not clear this will happen. Decisions made at the debates aren't set to take effect until January 2015, and individual governments still have to ratify the decisions. Upcoming 2013 conferences like the WTPF policy forum in May and the IGF forum in the Fall could be opportunities for dissenting governments to change their minds (and policies) about the future of the Web. But most observers see countries like China and Russia working to gain as much online control as possible to silence dissenters and control the spread of information.
FISA: Intercepting Email
In November the Senate Judiciary Committee passed the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), which makes any email more than 180 days old off-limits to law enforcement without a warrant. While this move was hailed by many Internet watchers, a similar bill is becoming a head-scratcher.
The FISA Amendments Act - a little-known law set to expire at the end of this month - grant the U.S. government extensive power to intercept emails and online conversations of people the Feds believe are foreigners — without a warrant. To many observers, it's a back-door loophole to keep tabs on people and get around constitutionally protected rights. The law was originally implemented by the Bush administration in 2008 under the auspices that it could help target foreign targets overseas, but it can also ensnare innocent Americans engaging in harmless communication with foreigners. And detractors have called the bill a violation of the fourth amendment.
In September 2012, the House approved a 5-year extension of the bill by a vote of 301 to 118. Now the Senate must vote by the end of the year or the authority expires.
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, wants to put a hold on the bill, meaning it can't be passed by unanimous consent but must go through the full legislative process on the floor. "What he wants is a debate," explained members of Wyden's office. "In return for listing hold, the Senator would ask for shortened debate time, but would seek votes on his amendments regarding ammount of communications accepted and closing backdoor searches."
But it looks like Wyden's not going to get that. In a rushed session Thursday, the Senate rejected three attempts to add privacy safeguards to the amendment. The final vote is slated for later today, and it's expected to be voted down. That means the amendment will create a very major civil rights quandary. And from Reddit to the non-profit digital rights group the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Web is up in arms.
Jim Fenton, chief security officer at digital identity service OneID, said this issue encapsulates the tension between personal privacy and law enforcement interests. "How do you determine that a particular person is a foreigner," asked Fenton. "Are there exceptions for people who are foreign [citizens] operating in the U.S.?"
The ACLU tried to sue the government over the law's constitutionality, but the original suit was thrown out. The U.S. Court of Appeals reinstated the suit in October, and the courts are now deciding whether or not the plaintiffs have standing to proceed with their challenge.
CALEA: Murky Telecom Access
The FISA Amendments issue dovetails to the Communications Assistance to Law Enforcement Act (CALEA), which requires telephone and Voice over IP (VoIP, or Internet telephony) providers to give police the ability to access the content of communications, which includes stored email, also without a warrant.
Obviously, CALEA brings up major questions of hosting location and searches. It's likely that any major email service provider would provide records, but what about servers in your own home? Who would have jurisdiction ?
"Does it matter if you host your email at Gmail or maybe if you're a geek you have your own email service at home," asked security expert Fenton. "A lot of people wouldn't expect different protection for these two situations, but there is. My understanding is [the government] would have to obtain a search warrant for your house in order to obtain the server."
3 More Things To Worry About
In addition to those three big issues, other concerns revolve around whether Congress will revive a version of the failed SOPA bill in 2013. Since the bill's author, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) , was named the next Congress' new chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology committee, it could very well happen.
On the other hand, it's probably not worth losing sleep over Rep. Darrell Issa (R-California)'s doomed Reddit proposed bill calling for a 2-year moratorium on new Internet legislation.
But there's another major issue not making headlines that could have a serious impact. Right now Congress is engaged in an inquiry investigating the practices of collecting and selling marketing databases and sales contact lists. It's looking at data collection methods, which Congress plans to use in considering new regulatory legislation.
The results could lead to bills that fundamentally change how data is stored and sold to third-party companies. Or it might not lead to anything but more hot air, as well-funded lobbyists work to convince Congress that more regulation is not needed.
There's no certainty that any of these regulations will take effect in 2013 - or ever. And even if they do, their effects may turn out to be far different than we expect. But make no mistake, national and international regulations could have profound effect on the Internet in the coming year.