Five Things to Watch That Will Shape the Internet's Future

For Internet users, the end result would be the loss of the empowering tools and platforms that have driven the unprecedented explosion in individual free expression, creativity and collaboration. What's dangerous here is that the arguments Viacom offers for nixing YouTube's safe harbor protection would likely exclude virtually all other user-generated content sites as well.

Does Fourth Amendment Apply to Text Messages and E-Mail?

Issue: City of Ontario v. Quon, pending in the Supreme Court

Narrative: A police officer used a police department communications device to send personal text messages. When the police department obtained the messages from the service provider to determine the extent of the officer's personal use of the device, the officer claimed that the police department had conducted a search that violates the Fourth Amendment.

The officer and the police department disagree about whether the department's Internet use policy, and its implementation of that policy, undermines the officer's expectation of privacy in those text messages.

What's at Stake: Text messaging and email are rapidly taking the place of voice calls as the communications means of choice; however, it's not settled whether the Fourth Amendment's privacy protection extend to these modern communications. If the Fourth Amendment does apply, the government may not obtain those communications without a warrant.

If the Court determines that such information is not constitutionally protected, email and text messages would still be protected by the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, but the level of protection would be less than it is for phone calls and Congress could become less likely to increase those protections, leaving our digital privacy at risk.

Although this case involves a government employer, many private employers permit employees to use company cell phones for personal use. CDT and other like-minded public interest groups jointly filed a "friend of the court" brief urging the court to take care to limit its ruling to the government employer context.

A private employer's monitoring policies should not eliminate any reasonable expectation of privacy that an employee has against warrantless surveillance of employee's written communications.

Issue: Baseline Consumer Privacy Bill

Narrative: After a year of anticipation, Rep. Rick Boucher, Democrat of Virginia, chairman of the House Communications, Technology and the Internet Subcommittee, has released draft privacy legislation that proposes a baseline of privacy protections for data collected both online and offline. Boucher's office is currently accepting feedback on the draft.

What's at Stake: Despite the unprecedented challenges to privacy in today's digital world, the United States still has no comprehensive law that spells out consumers' privacy rights in the commercial marketplace. Instead, a confusing patchwork of distinct standards has developed over the years, with highly uneven results and many gaps in coverage.

For example, while there is a strong privacy law that protects your cable viewing habits, no such law protects records of what you buy online. And while FCC rules offer protections against your mobile phone company selling the location data it has on you (from tracking your cell phone all over town, and beyond), no comparable rules exist for the same information collected by other services such as social networks or advertising networks.

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