Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Extreme Dodginess

In December 2005 the first report that the NSA may be performing warrantless surveillance of persons within the US. Since then numerous news articles have been written, justifications made, lawsuits filed, explanations avoided and other activities.

One of the more recent parts of this whole mess was when it was alleged that several phone companies just gave vast quantities of customer data to the government without requesting any sort of due process from the government (like getting a warrant for the data). One of the big companies, Verizon, is facing a joint suit from customers.

In the last week two worrying developments have occured with regard to this case. The first is a rather interesting defense strategy Verizon are trying to use. Free Speech. Verizon is arguing that they have a right to Free Speech, and this includes telling the government truthful information about its customers. This is malarkey for several reasons. First, it has long been established by the American courts that Freedom of Speech is not absolute, or at least is not freedom from the consequences of your Free Speech. One of the exceptions to Free Speech is commercial speech, speech by a company. Also, I am sure that America, like Australia, has privacy laws that specify when and how a company may disclose customer information to other parties, and that such laws require the government to get a warrant to obtain such information. Such a law is clearly a restriction on commercial speech, and one I'm sure most people are glad to see exist. There is also the whole debate on corporate personhood, and if a company can really claim to have a First Amendment right to Free Speech.

The next worrying event is a bill being proposed by the Bush administration. Buried at section 408 (why are laws always so long and complicated?) is the following:
Notwithstanding any other law, and in addition to the immunities, privileges, and defenses provided by any other source of law, no action shall lie or be maintained in any court, and no penalty, sanction, or other form of remedy or relief shall be imposed by any court or any other body, against any person for the alleged provision to an element of the intelligence community of any information (including records or other information pertaining to a customer), facilities, or any other form of assistance, during the period of time beginning on September 11, 2001, and ending on the date that is the effective date of this Act, in connection with any alleged classified communications intelligence activity that the Attorney General or a designee of the Attorney General certifies, in a manner consistent with the protection of State secrets, is, was, would be, or would have been intended to protect the United States from a terrorist attack.
What does this mean. Well it means that any company providing the government with assistance in pursuing the "War on Terror" would be immune to liability for its actions, regardless of the legality or illegality of what they did. And, this applies since September the 11th, 2001. This would be really handy for Verizon. the conversation in court would go a little like this
Verizon: Your honor, this action was taken to assist the government in pursuit of the "War on Terror", and so we bear no liability for our actions.
Judge: Case dismissed.
No actual discussion of the case, no deciding if the acts were illegal, a violation of privacy, etc, just case dismissed, no questions asked.

The problem with laws like this is that they don't need to exist. The only reason to create this section is if you're scared of something. This is very much like the bill that gave senior government officers immunity from prosecution for charges relating to torture. If they weren't torturing anyone, as they claimed, why did they need immunity from prosecution? And if the phone companies aren't doing anything wrong, why do they need a blanket immunity from liability? Retroactive laws should be anathema to any nation claiming to follow the rule of law. If the rules for today can be changed tomorrow, how am I to know what to do? To quote Penn and Teller out of context (although I'm sure they'd agree) it's Bullshit!

End Post
Writing time: 1 hour 12 minutes (includes research and some other activities)
Time since last post: 3 days
Current media: iTunes collection ordered by track number, currently playing the Right Here, Right Now by Fatboy Slim

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