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Summary: U.S. Internet Privacy Laws

In the United States, the regulation of online privacy is complicated by the fact that Federal laws sometimes differ from state laws. Online privacy is generally seen as falling under the Fourth Amendment, or the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures. Since the Constitution is generally not amended, existing Amendments protecting civil rights are either interpreted to encompass new issues, or the new issues, such as internet privacy, prompt the passing of particular State laws. Accordingly, “ten states have constitutional provisions that expressly provide greater privacy protections than those provided for in the U.S. Constitution” (NCLS). Until 2011, the most important Federal U.S. law governing wire, oral and electronic communications was the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) of 1986. This Act was mostly concerned with pre-internet wiretapping and bugging, but is an important legal document which has served as the foundation for later electronic privacy legislation.

Another law linked to monitoring of online information of private individuals is the 2001 Patriot Act, which allows for wiretaps of U.S. citizens suspected of being connected to terrorist activities. This law “modified portions of numerous electronic communications laws, including the ECPA and FISA, expanding the authority of federal law enforcement to combat terrorism” (Cornell Law). In more recent years, namely 2011, two bills attempting to regulate internet piracy – the PROTECT IP Act of 2011 (Protect IP) in the Senate and the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) – were passed and later put on hold. The two represented “the latest legislative attempts to address a serious global problem: large-scale online copyright and trademark infringement” (Lemley et al. 34). As Andrew McLaughlin notes, the debate on regulating internet piracy is closely tied to privacy because “the real threat is surveillance” (qtd. in Sanchez np). He goes on to explain that “censorship and surveillance are natural partners: Monitoring alone often chills speech as effectively as blocking, and content prohibitions naturally give rise to monitoring designed to identify prohibited content” (qtd. in Sanchez np). Even though SOPA and PIPA were put on hold after a public outcry over accusations of censorship, a new, similar law is already being considered. The Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA) is a proposed law which would allow the U.S. government to survey certain manufacturing and technology companies with the aim of investigating cyber threats and increasing online security. If passed, the new law would make it possible for the government to monitor private individuals’ browsing information.

Works Cited

Lemley,Mark, David S. Levine, and David G. Post. “Don’t Break the Internet”. Stanford Law Review Online, 64. Web. Dec 19th 2011.

Sanchez, Julian. “Perhaps SOPA Should Be Called The Stop Online PRIVACY Act”. Web. Dec 19th 2011.



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