PACT Act Threatens Internet Anonymity, Online Commerce

Published August 1, 2009

Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-NY) is attempting to make it more difficult for Americans to get their cigarettes online, an effort that could open the door to further restrictions on freedom of online commerce.

Weiner’s bill, the Prevent All Cigarette Trafficking Act (PACT) of 2009 (HB 1676), prohibits the U.S. Postal Service from handling any tobacco products that break local tax laws. It also would force companies selling cigarettes online to install age verification software on their Web sites.

Terrorism Claim

Weiner says his bill, which passed the House in May on a 397-11 vote, also will help deter terrorists, who he says traffic in black-market smokes.

“This new crackdown on the illegal sale of tobacco will close a major source of finances for global terrorists and criminals,” Weiner said. “Every day we delay is another day that New York loses significant amounts of tax revenue and kids have easy access to tobacco products sold over the Internet.”

Sen. Herb Kohl (D-WI) is sponsoring a similar law in the Senate.

‘Dangerous’ Precedent

Daniel Ballon, a senior technology expert at the San Francisco-based Pacific Research Institute, thinks Weiner’s legislation is dangerous in requiring companies selling cigarettes online to install age verification software on their Web sites.

“Any sort of legislation that forces age verification requirements upon Internet sites goes down a very dangerous road because it begs the question: How are we going to verify that person’s age?” Ballon asked.

“I do not think we want any sort of age verification programs [forced] on Web site operators generally, because that is something that we as a country usually protect strongly—the ability to be anonymous,” Ballon added.

Internet ID Perils

Some countries have gone down the Internet ID road, requiring Web surfers to put in a national ID number, identify their age, and give other such information before being able to log on. One of those countries, Ballon notes, is North Korea.

Berin Szoka, director of the Washington, DC-based Center for Internet Freedom at the Progress & Freedom Foundation, sees the PACT Act as a possible “open door” to even greater federal government regulation of online Internet commerce.

“In general, I would not want to see narrow concerns like tobacco sales open the door to more regulation of online commerce,” Szoka said.

Thomas Cheplick
([email protected]) writes from Cambridge, Massachusetts.