No need to gut ’84 Cable Act

Oct 8, 2001  •  Post A Comment

Along with the rest of the damage it did to the American psyche, the terrorist attack of Sept. 11 delivered a blow to the confidence of the nation’s top law enforcement officials. When the second plane hit the World Trade Center and it became clear this was no accident, the FBI, CIA, Justice Department and others knew they had let the nation down.
Their way of coping included trying to cash in on the nation’s fear, grief and outrage by launching an urgent campaign for expansion of law enforcement powers. It’s a reaction that makes sense from the perspective of the law enforcement community, and one that is not entirely without merit. But it’s also one that must be met with skepticism and careful examination.
A case in point is the effort by Attorney General John Ashcroft to make it easier to implement wiretaps of broadband telephone and Internet lines. As part of the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2001, Mr. Ashcroft is seeking to throw out a privacy provision in the Cable Act of 1984 that has caused cable operators to balk at wiretap requests. And the cable industry is supporting his efforts.
The Cable Act provision was intended to prevent unauthorized monitoring of cable subscribers’ TV viewing. But as cable connections began to be used to provide more than TV programming, a loophole appeared regarding cable-delivered telephone and Internet service. Some cable operators, apparently concerned about the risk of lawsuits, have refused to allow court-ordered wiretaps, citing the Cable Act.
Now the effort is under way to gut the privacy protections of the Cable Act. And the cable industry’s support of that effort has aroused suspicion among watchdog groups that the industry is trying to use this opportunity to get the go-ahead to monitor subscribers’ cable habits for marketing purposes. The National Cable & Telecommunications Association refutes such suggestions.
It’s hard to be certain about just how crass the industry’s motives might be. But clearly, in cable regulations as in other facets of American life, a balance needs to be found between a healthy fear of terrorism and the need to defend the liberties that define us as a nation. Obviously, cable operators must comply with court-ordered wiretaps. If the current regulations contain any ambiguity about the industry’s responsibilities and liabilities, that ambiguity should be cleared up. Cable operators have a right to go about their business without fear of legal repercussions for complying with wiretap orders.
But especially in an atmosphere of fear, Americans must remain vigilant against individuals, agencies or industries that would use the campaign against terrorism as a smokescreen for attempts to throw out civil protections and pursue hidden agendas.