How the Internet is like snail-mail

Stroke of genius warning: I have come up with a virtually fool-proof plan for stopping extortionists and assorted whack-jobs from mailing ransom notes, exploding packages and poison-laced envelopes to innocent victims ... or Congressmen, for that matter.

Simply require that all mail originating in the United States -- every letter, bill, catalog, magazine and parcel -- be physically transported by the sender to a United States Post Office building, where a postal service employee will biometrically authenticate and record the sender's identity while under the watchful eye of a video camera. No more skulk-and-drops into an unguarded mailbox. (No more little-red-flag pickup service outside your house, either, but what's a loss of such convenience when we're talking about protecting the public's safety?)

Nutty as Ted Kaczynski, you say?

Of course it's nutty, I'm just saying my plan would reduce dramatically the number serious crimes committed via the mail. And it would also be of immense help to law enforcement in capturing those criminals too brazen or too stupid to be deterred.

I'm also saying my plan is not a whole lot nuttier than a data-retention bill filed yesterday in Washington. From a Cnet report:

Republican politicians on Thursday called for a sweeping new federal law that would require all Internet providers and operators of millions of Wi-Fi access points, even hotels, local coffee shops, and home users, to keep records about users for two years to aid police investigations.

The legislation, which echoes a measure proposed by one of their Democratic colleagues three years ago, would impose unprecedented data retention requirements on a broad swath of Internet access providers and is certain to draw fire from businesses and privacy advocates.

"While the Internet has generated many positive changes in the way we communicate and do business, its limitless nature offers anonymity that has opened the door to criminals looking to harm innocent children," U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, said at a press conference on Thursday. "Keeping our children safe requires cooperation on the local, state, federal, and family level."

Ah, yes, let's do it for the children.

In all likelihood, this legislation will have no more staying power than a dynamically assigned IP address. However, Congress has proven itself capable of worse, so there's no harm in speculating what consequences might arise should the bill pass.

First up, hopefully, would be a veto by a cyber-hip President Obama.

If not -- if this stinker actually became law -- the big ISPs would have no choice but to comply. However, my guess is that many smaller providers and operators of those millions of Wi-Fi access points would simply shrug and go about their business as they do now, which is to say they'd ignore the new requirements. Big corporations, not having the luxury of disdain, would tally up the costs associated with the record-keeping and weigh it against the benefits derived from their hot spots. A Starbucks would probably bite the bullet and comply; a hotel chain would probably close down the lobby Internet access.

Then I presume there would be a handful of show prosecutions and/or regulatory crackdowns, although just imagine where on the scale of priorities this would fall for prosecutors and regulators? That demonstration of resolve would cause more Wi-Fi operators to do the Starbucks/hotel calculation.

A lot of hot spots would go cold, although much shrugging would continue.

The law of unintended consequences would be giddy with anticipation.

But at least the bad guys would no longer be able to use the Internet to prey upon our children, right?

Maybe in some politician's dream.

Back to my post office plan: The reason it won't be adopted -- I mean in addition to it being nutty -- is that a free society makes tradeoffs all the time between security and openness. The occasional Kaczynski or batch of cyanide letters, tragic though they are, is an acceptable price for the massive utility and convenience of ubiquitous and anonymous mail drops. The fact that we made that decision a long time ago and accept the consequences to this day does not mean we don't care about the victims, or that criminals don't pay for their postal-based crimes.

Same thing with the Internet.

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