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Perspective: Privacy advocates lose an ally

CNET's Washington watcher Declan McCullagh assesses the legacy of outgoing House Majority Leader Dick Armey, whose support of privacy rights made him much beloved by opponents of Big Brother legislation.

WASHINGTON--I'm going to miss Dick Armey, the crusty Texas Republican and House majority leader who is retiring after 17 years in Congress.

No, I won't miss his repeated attempts to outlaw electronic vice. An unapologetic social conservative, Armey voted to restrict online sales of alcohol, prohibit Internet gambling and restrict the sale of violent video games to minors.

Still, Armey emerged as one of the finest champions of privacy in Washington, and his departure means that the House leadership will no longer include anyone attuned to the perils of electronic snooping.

As second-in-command in the GOP's congressional leadership, Armey has been in a perfect position to block hideous proposals while shepherding better ones toward floor votes. Because it looks like the Republicans will keep control of the House after next week's elections, Armey's exit means good privacy laws could become even more rare than they already are.

"The fact that technology makes so many things more possible creates a temptation to say: 'We've got these tools; we just want to use them.' Technology always gives us new opportunities and new abilities," Armey said in an interview last week. "Our question is: Do we learn to responsibly use them? My sense is at the Justice Department, you have people who are chomping at the bit. You have these new electronic capabilities, and they can't wait to deploy them. That's why we have a Congress that can provide oversight."

More to the point, Congress can impose reasonable limits on the FBI's Internet snooping. Over the past three years, Armey has made overseeing the bureau's Carnivore (DCS1000) surveillance system a top priority. In October 2000, Armey said the shadowy spy device, which investigators use to eavesdrop on suspects, raises "serious constitutional issues." A month later, he told then-Attorney General Janet Reno that a purportedly independent board designed to review Carnivore had come up with "questionable" results.

Technology always gives us new opportunities and new abilities. Our question is: Do we learn to responsibly use them?
--House majority leader Dick Armey
After the Republicans took over the Justice Department last year, many politicos would have shut up for fear of embarrassing their own party. Not Armey. After John Ashcroft replaced Reno, Armey sent him a letter stating: "I respectfully ask that you consider the serious constitutional questions Carnivore has raised and respond with how you intend to address them. This is an issue of great importance to the online public."

And in other areas? As long as you're talking about economic rather than social freedoms, Armey has been a staunch ally of the tech industry and Internet users.

After news leaked of a federal plan to monitor Internet traffic, Armey responded with an attack on "government Peeping Toms." He has also supported Americans' right to use encryption to shield their privacy and campaigned doggedly against automated cameras that send tickets for speeding or running red lights.

In July, Armey added a chief privacy officer to the bill creating a Department of Homeland Security. Armey also hated the idea of states taxing the Internet and called for a permanent ban on the practice. (Only a temporary ban was eventually enacted.)

Unlike many of his colleagues, Armey understands a key difference between corporate privacy invaders and government ones: Governments have far more power and are far more threatening. Don't like a company's privacy policy? Shop somewhere else. Just try saying that to City Hall or the Internal Revenue Service.

"The big difference between the private sector and the government is that government transactions either are, or are perceived to be, mandatory," Armey said. "The private sector never has the ability to coerce you into doing something."

As long as you're talking about economic rather than social freedoms, Armey has been a staunch ally of the tech industry and Internet users.
Citing that theory, Armey sent a letter to all of his colleagues last year, urging them to go slow when enacting new laws applying to corporate data collection and use. No law has yet been enacted.

Marc Rotenberg, the head of the Electronic Privacy Information Center and proponent of more laws to regulate corporate data practices, describes Armey as a formidable adversary. "Mr. Armey's a good person to have on your side," Rotenberg said. "In the privacy world, he was on our side about half the time, which was great. He was concerned about Big Brother, less so about big business."

Rotenberg praises Armey as one of the key legislators in ensuring that the USA Patriot Act, which President Bush signed a year ago, was not as intrusive as it could have been.

"If you want a short list of congressional heroes in the civil liberties community after Sept. 11, Rep. Armey would be near the top," Rotenberg said. "On those issues he should be recognized for his efforts and, frankly, his effectiveness."

Some portions of the USA Patriot Act expire in December 2005. Not included in the list of those are sections stating that law enforcement has the ability to conduct Internet surveillance without a court order in some circumstances, that it can secretly search homes and offices without notifying the owner, and that it can share confidential grand jury information with the CIA and National Security Agency.

When asked if he regretted voting for the final bill with only limited expirations, Armey replied: "No, not really. In the urgencies of the time, these things are going to happen. We knew this bill was going to pass. The question is: Can we reserve the ability to come back five years from now and look at it again? You try to get the whole cake if you can. What I got in the sunset was enough to know that there was going to have to be some oversight."

One of the more colorful members of Congress, Armey once slept on a couch in his congressional office to save rent. He nearly lost his position as majority leader in 1997 after seeming to take both sides in an abortive coup against then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Earlier, he had championed Gingrich's Contract With America and outraged America's cultural mavens by trying to ax the National Endowment for the Arts.

And now that's he's retiring? Armey won't divulge what's next except to say that he wants to stay involved in privacy topics from his home in Texas. Another Texan, House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, may become the point person on surveillance technology, Armey said. "I think Tom DeLay is clearly someone who's up to that."

So long, Dick Armey. Privacy has lost a useful ally.