FISA Bill Much Worse than Immunity

Apparently, the FISA bill is much worse than many commentators have made it seem. The bill goes way beyond telecom immunity. As Ars says, immunity is the “icing, not the cake.” According to Ars:

Specifically, the new legislation dramatically expands the government’s ability to wiretap without meaningful judicial oversight, by redefining “oversight” so that the feds can drag their feet on getting authorization almost indefinitely. It also gives the feds unprecedented new latitude in selecting eavesdropping targets, latitude that could be used to collect information on non-terrorist-related activities like P2P copyright infringement and online gambling. In short, the FISA Amendments Act of 2008 opens up loopholes so large that the feds could drive a truck loaded down with purloined civil liberties through it.

I should point out that this is one area in which I disagree with my colleague Hans Bader. Hans has posted numerous times about his support for a strong FISA bill. While Hans is right to point out that privacy advocates have been a bit inconsistent in their opposition to government snooping at times, I don’t think that’s a reason for libertarians to be inconsistent too.

My brand of libertarianism opposes the government tapping into private phone lines or spectrum in order to listen to what people are saying – even if it helps fight terrorism. I’m a deontologist, and so think that good consequences cannot justify fundamentally unjust actions. (One can also question whether the FISA bill will really help fight terrorism and even whether we should be so concerned with fighting terrorism. I predict that more people in the US will die of lightning strikes this year than of terrorism.)

Because I’m a deontologist, I also oppose telecom immunity (another point where I disagree with Hans). Companies that do something wrong, e.g. wiretapping conversations that they agreed not to, should be punished for their actions. Further, we should not incentivize companies to do wrong, when ordered by the state. Instead, they should – like Google – fight demands to violate their customers’ privacy.

I’d be interested to hear the comments of other libertarians. TLF writers like Tim Lee are with me, but my former boss Roger Pilon is with Hans.