Meet America's Net Police

| | Will this man soon be watching you surf?|

You may have already read about the Web toll—the fee that the telecommunications companies are hoping to collect from high-bandwidth, money-making sites like YouTube—which is threatening the open Internet as we know it. Now another of the Internet's fundamental virtues is under attack, this time by the federal government.

In a speech last month, U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales urged Internet companies to increase the collection and retention of data about their customers' Internet usage habits to help catch criminals "abusing kids and sending images of the abuse around the world through the Internet." Last week, however, in a private meeting with Web bigwigs like Google, Comcast and AOL, Gonzales for the first time placed the call for "data retention" under the all-encompassing, all-powerful umbrella of the fight against terrorism, according to a report by CNET's news.com.

Just what can potentially be retained, then? A full record of all of your electronic correspondences, for starters—that's e-mail, IM, Internet phone, everything. Say your friend is studying at the American University in Cairo (as a friend of mine did recently), and you correspond via IM (or Skype) and exchange pictures through email on a regular basis (as I'm sure my friend and I did as well). "If there are people inside our country who are talking with al Qaeda, we want to know about it," the President said in his State of the Union address earlier this year, and here I am, talking with someone in the Middle East on a regular basis. But in the eyes of the "War on Terror," my friend in Cairo could just as easily be a potential terrorist operative.

For now, the data collection will stop short of the contents of individual communications. But to think that activity as normal as mine might, in the near future, be monitored freely as a potential terrorist act…wow. You may have also read about China's Web Police, Jingjing and Chacha. What's next, a blinking anime-styled picture of Mr. Gonzales up there next to the Gmail logo, to remind us of our government's vigilance? —John Mahoney