Updated 6:13 pm ET, Friday, April 13
The adage “never discuss politics” has never applied much to the Web.
But on Friday, political discussion surrounding a new cybersecurity bill turned into an all out messaging war between the bill’s critics and its backers.
The bill, the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act or CISPA, for short, seeks to allow the government and private companies to share more information, including customer information, about perceived national cybersecurity threats.
Introduced on November 30, 2011 by co-sponsors Rep. Mike Rogers (R-MI) and Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-MD), CISPA has since received the backing of a total 111 lawmakers among both parties and upwards of 800 companies in the private sector, including Web heavyweights Google and Facebook.
And yet, with the bill scheduled to be voted upon by the House the week of April 23, fierce opposition has mounted.
Web freedom and consumer advocacy groups, writers and other media outlets have drawn parallels between CISPA and another, older lightning-rod of a bill, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), which sought to fight online piracy by forcing U.S. websites to break internet links and financial ties to foreign websites accused of copyright infringement.
CISPA has markedly different goals than SOPA and completely different language, but critics are concerned that the bill’s terms are still too broad, especially a provision that defines “cyber threat intelligence” as “information…pertaining to the protection of a system or network from…theft or misappropriation of private or government information, intellectual property, or personal information.”
To be clear, CISPA would allow the government to share such “cyber threat intelligence” with companies, and companies would be allowed to share such information with the government. It’s the portions about “intellectual property” that have set off the alarm bells of SOPA opponents, as that bill also sought to protect intellectual property.
The EFF, for one believes that the term “is so broad it could be used as a blunt instrument to attack websites like The Pirate Bay or WikiLeaks.”
Many of the advocacy groups now fighting CISPA — including left-leaning Demand Progress, Web-user rights advocate Electronic Frontier Foundation and the small but financially savvy nonprofit Fight For the Future, to name a few — also spearheaded the early opposition to the Stop Online Piracy Act in the Fall of 2011.
SOPA and its Senate counterpart, PROTECT IP (PIPA), ended up essentially killed in Congress, following a massive online protest on January 18, in which numerous major websites “blacked out” parts of their homepages and lawmakers who supported the bill backed down.
However, in the SOPA and PIPA fight, Google and a number of other major Web companies were on the side of the advocacy groups, against the bills. This time, Silicon Valley’s major companies largely have sided with the CISPA’s Congressional backers in urging passage, with many even penning letters of support.
As such, the bill’s critics are facing an uphill struggle, but they’re not wasting any time.
On Friday, advocacy group Demand Progress launched an online petition for users to pressure Facebook into dropping its support of the bill. Seeking to spread the petition across Facebook itself and other social media channels and turn it into a viral sensation, Demand Progress altered a photo of Mark Zuckerberg to make it resemble popular Internet memes such as “Scumbag Steve” and the like, overlaying the text “[Zuckerberg] says he will protect the net, [but] has Facebook sign on in support of CISPA.”
“Internet users were able to push GoDaddy to withdraw its support of SOPA,” Demand Progress wrote. “Now it’s time to make sure Facebook knows we’re furious.”
But the bill’s supporters have used social media to hit back, too. The House Intelligence Committee, which originally debated the bill in a markup hearing in December 2011, and which is run by the bill’s primary sponsor Rep. Rogers (Chairman of the committee) and Rep. Ruppersberger (Ranking member), launched a Twitter account on Wednesday which it has been using to attempt to counter the comparisons between CISPA and SOPA.
“It is disappointing that some are using new media to spread misinformation about our cyber bill,” said Susan Phalen, a spokesperson for the House Intelligence Committee, in an email to TPM. “We are working diligently to inform the public about what the Rogers-Ruppersberger bill actually does, which is to give the government authority to provide classified cyber threat information to private sector companies and clear the legal barriers that currently inhibit cyber threat information sharing between private sector entities, and between private sector entities and the government — all while providing strong protections for privacy and civil liberties.”
Further, Phalen told TPM that the bills sponsors had reached out to critics directly, holding “over 100 meetings with cyber industry groups and businesses, and privacy advocates and civil liberties groups, including the CDT, ACLU, EFF, CATO, The Heritage Foundation, the Constitution Project, etc.”
And yet, will the bill scheduled to hit the full House floor the week of April 23 for further debate, the battle over CIPSA appears to be just getting started in earnest.
Late update: A popular Twitter account associated with Anonymous joined the messaging war on Friday as well, unsurprisingly coming out against CISPA.
“Tell @HouseIntelComm how you feel about #CISPA!!! | #StopCISPA” tweeted @YourAnonNews.
A week prior, the same Twitter account launched an online boycott of movie subscription service Netflix, encouraging users to cancel their accounts in protest of a Netflix political action committee, which @YourAnonNews and other media outlets incorrectly presumed was formed to support SOPA or CISPA. (Netflix said the PAC was formed primarily to pass legislation allowing it to create a Facebook movie watching and recommendation-sharing app, currently prohibited by U.S. law.)
Second late update: Facebook has posted a lengthy note defending its support of the bill.