One of the big challenges for libertarians is that we understand “public choice theory.” In other words, we know that people attracted to government will have both the incentive and the power to do bad things, so our quandary is how to give government the authority to provide so-called public goods without sowing the seeds for an oppressive Leviathan state.
Our Founding Fathers thought they solved this problem by drafting and ratifying a constitution that placed firm limits on the power of government. Sadly, that system largely broke down in the 1930s and 1940s as the Supreme Court ceded its role of protecting economic liberty (with John Roberts a few years ago providing the icing on the cake of untrammeled government power).
That’s the bad news.
The good news is that the judicial branch has done a somewhat better job of protecting personal liberty. Indeed, with the courts leading the way on certain issues (such as whether governments can persecute people for being gay), we may even have more personal liberty than the Founders intended.
Speaking of personal liberty, one of the thorniest challenges is that we want government to fight crime, but we also want to make sure that it doesn’t have the power and authority to trample individual rights.
That’s one of the reasons the Founding Fathers gave us a Bill of Rights that protects our right to a speedy trial, protects us from double jeopardy, and gives us the right to remain silent. And the Bill of Rights also protects us by requiring governments to get judicial approval (search warrants) before snooping into out private property. And that’s the focus of today’s column.
And the case study for our discussion will be the way government is seeking to access electronic data without following proper procedures. Veronique de Rugy provides the background in her column for Reason.
The Electronic Communications Privacy Act was passed in 1986, when data storage was considerably more expensive and primitive. At the time, it was not common for data to be kept online for very long. As such, the ECPA considers emails held online by a third party for more than 180 days to be abandoned and thus open to access by law enforcement without a normal warrant. …Now that free online email hosts are commonplace and terabytes of cloud storage are available at little cost, the ECPA is a troubling anachronism. Today’s internet users expect their data to be protected from prying government eyes for as long as they choose to store it.
Amazingly, some politicians actually want to fix this problem.
There is a bill making its way through Congress that attempts to address these issues. It’s the International Communications Privacy Act. The bipartisan bill—introduced by Sens. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, Chris Coons, D-Del., and Dean Heller, R-Nev.—…would codify into law a simple and clear standard: A warrant should always be required to access private information from a third party. The reforms in the ICPA would move us away from the current ’80s drama. It also seems that the package could even move through Congress during a contentious election season because it safeguards consumer data while also acknowledging that there must be legitimate and accessible law enforcement tools to pursue digital evidence across borders.
By the way, this has become an issue in part because the courts have intervened to slap down overzealous law enforcement in a cross-border investigation,
…the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rebuked the Justice Department after a three-year legal battle with Microsoft, which hosted data for an Irish citizen being pursued by U.S. authorities. The data was being kept in a server located in Ireland, yet the U.S. government insisted it had jurisdiction to demand access just because the company that held it is a subsidiary of Microsoft, an American corporation. …ECPA…provides no authority for access to data held overseas. The government officials most likely made this overreach rather than go through the mutual legal assistance treaty, or MLAT, process—which would have enabled them to work with the appropriate overseas authority—because of the fact that MLAT procedures are also cumbersome and outdated.
The Hatch-Coons-Heller legislation deals with these issues by both requiring warrants but also improving the MLAT process, which is a win-win situation. Innocent people have their rights protected and governments have a better system for investigating potential bad guys.
Which helps to explain why a coalition of taxpayer organizations and free-market groups have embraced the proposed legislation.
The bill contains provisions that would protect the privacy of American citizens, promote cross-border data flow, provide adequate tools for law enforcement, and enhance the nation’s global trade agenda. …S. 2986/H.R. 5323 would require U.S. law enforcement agencies to obtain a warrant for the content of electronic communications stored with electronic communications service providers and remote computing service providers. The legal framework will allow authorities to obtain the electronic communications of U.S. persons, regardless of where those communications are located. …S. 2986/H.R. 5323 reforms the MLAT process and provides greater accessibility, transparency, and accountability by requiring the attorney general to create an online docketing system for MLAT requests and publish new statistics on the number of such requests. …ICPA strikes the right balance between the legitimate needs of law enforcement and the privacy of American citizens, while enhancing international agreements.
Having looked at a specific example of how to enable effective law enforcement while also protecting civil liberties, let’s now zoom out and consider the big picture.
One of the problems in our system is that there are too many laws. Not just too many laws, but laws that are capricious and impossible to understand.
This is why Harvey Silverglate wrote Three Felonies a Day to describe how normal, law-abiding people unintentionally commit crimes (that shouldn’t be crimes).
Here’s a video interview from Reason with Mr. Silverglate.
The bottom line is that when you mix capricious and impossible-to-understand laws with capricious and vindictive bureaucrats, you get horrifying examples of government thuggery.
Remember, if we want to fight genuine crime, it’s a good idea to have just laws.
P.S. And if we have fewer bad and needless laws, we’ll have less police abuse.
P.P.S. To close on a humorous note, President Obama’s approach to the Bill of Rights leaves much to be desired.
P.P.P.S. In reference to the public-goods/Leviathan-state quandary discussed at the start of this column, the anarcho-capitalists say the solution is to abolish all government and to allow markets to provide public goods. I’m glad there are scholars pushing this idea (and I certainly had lots of interesting discussions about this concept while in grad school), but given what’s been happening over the past 100 years, I doubt this will be a practical option in my lifetime.