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R.I. House passes Internet subpoena bill

June 10, 2011

PROVIDENCE — Legislation billed as another police tool to prevent and pursue Internet child pornography, but that privacy and civil liberties advocates worry will cast too wide a net for less serious crimes, passed the House of Representatives 62-6 on Thursday.
The bill would allow the attorney general, local police chiefs, and other designated law enforcement officials to issue an “administrative subpoena” that would require an Internet service provider to disclose the name and address associated with a subscriber of that provider.
Proponents said this would merely expedite the investigation process and allow police to learn the identity of a suspect in a cybercrime-related case. They say it would simply give the police the name and address of a suspect, it would not allow them to conduct a search or seize any computer equipment or other materials.
Advocates for the bill says such administrative subpoenas are generally complied with quickly by an Internet service company in contrast to a warrant issued by a judge which the company will often route through its legal department causing sometimes lengthy delays.
“There's a big difference between two days and two weeks or two months,” Majority Leader Nicholas Mattiello. “When you are dealing with these types of crimes...you have the potential of saving a lot of victims along the way. If there is an investigation going on in your community and a week would have saved a kid from abuse, a serious assault and a lifetime of trauma, isn't that something we would want to do?”
“This is not an ominous bill,” said Glocester Rep. Michael Chippendale, a Republican. “This is not a jackboot, kicking-down-your-door-at-three-in-the-morning bill. This is a very simple tool that we have to give out law enforcement community so they can stop wasting time waiting and actually go out very quickly, very responsibly and apprehend the people who are perpetrating these crimes.”
West Warwick Rep. Patricia Morgan, also a Republican, said, “the bill seems awfully broad. It says anyone who suffers a child to be associated with criminal persons. Some children have fathers who have been convicted of felonies. Anybody who seriously alarms, annoys or bothers a person. People bother and annoy me sometimes.”
That is the part of the bill that drew opposition from the local affiliate of the ACLU.
In a news release, ACLU Executive Director Steven Brown said, “police will be able to easily obtain, just by signing a piece of paper, the name and address of any blogger, Facebook poster, etc. who is alleged to have said something that they consider to potentially be criminal 'harassment' or 'bullying.'”
Brown said, “The ACLU has opposed this "administrative subpoena" legislation for many years (believing that court approval should be necessary to issue these types of subpoenas), but in previous years, it had at least been limited to allowing police to gain Internet subscriber information only about individuals alleged to be involved in child pornography.
Its expansion to a limitless range of other computer-related crimes prompted the RI Press Association to testify against the bill this year.
In written testimony to the House Judiciary Committee, RIPA President Scott Pickering worried that the measure would create an alarmingly low standard for what constitutes cyberstalking or cyberharassment. Someone could be considered in violation if they seriously “alarm, annoy or bother” another person; or if their actions cause “emotional distress.” These are very low thresholds, with vague language subject to wide interpretation.”
The bill now goes to the Senate, where an identical bill introduced by Sen. Beatrice Lanzi has passed that chamber's Judiciary committee and is headed for a floor vote.
In a related matter, the House also passed, on a vote of 59-2, a bill by Sen. Maryellen Goodwin that adds cyberstalking and cyberharrassment, with the same language about messages that “seriously alarms, annoys or bothers a person,” to the law against domestic violence. That bill now goes to Gov. Lincoln Almond for his signature or veto. An identical bill by Pawtucket Rep. Elaine Coderre has passed the House and a Senate committee and is now headed to the Senate floor.

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