Updated 3:20 pm ET, Thursday, August 2
The U.S. Senate voted not to move forward with a controversial and sweeping cybersecurity bill on Thursday, to the chagrin of the bill’s main architect, Senator Joseph Lieberman (I-CT), as well as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and the White House, which staunchly supported the bill.
With Congress about to leave for August recess, cybersecurity issues will remain untouched for at least a month, and possibly longer, if election-year priorities take over once Congress returns in September.
“Am I disappointed? You bet I am. Am I angry? Yes I am,” said Lieberman in a statement to reporters following the vote. “Because once again the members of Congress have failed to come together to deal with a serious national problem.”
“I am extremely disappointed Republicans derailed a critical national security bill we have been working on for the past three years,” Reid said in a statement on Thursday.
The White House was even more blistering in its condemnation of Senate Republicans, releasing a statement saying in part that “the politics of obstructionism, driven by special interest groups seeking to avoid accountability, prevented Congress from passing legislation to better protect our nation from potentially catastrophic cyber-attacks.”
To be accurate, the vote wasn’t completely along party lines: Six Democrats broke ranks to vote against the bill as well, while five Republicans voted in favor of it.
Web user and freedom advocacy groups celebrated the Senate’s cloture vote — 52 to 46, short of the 60 needed to break a filibuster on consideration of the bill — as a victory for the open Web and user privacy.
“We’re actually quite excited,” said Tiffiniy Cheng, co-founder of Fight For the Future, a nonprofit advocacy group that opposed the bill entirely, in a phone interview with TPM. “This is a victory for the Internet.”
Fight For the Future and about two dozen other advocacy groups — including the American Civil Liberties Union, Demand Progress and the Electronic Frontier Foundation — were concerned about the ramifications that any cybsercurity “information-sharing” laws would have on individual Web user privacy.
Lieberman’s bill would have enabled private companies and government agencies to share information they regularly collect — including Web user data and communications — if such information was deemed pertinent to suspected national cybersecurity threats.
Lieberman, who is Chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, originally introduced the bill in February with his colleague and Committee Ranking Member, Senator Susan Collins (R-ME).
But other Senate Republicans, including Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) opposed the bill on the grounds that the “voluntary information sharing” program it would create would actually impose mandatory standards on private companies to share information with the government and to bolster their own cybersecurity systems and defenses.
A major sticking point during the bill’s evolution concerned so-called “critical infrastructure” — electricity plants, water treatment facilities, railroads, even internet service providers. The Obama administration and the bill’s other backers originally wanted to it to contain mandatory minimum cybersecurity measures for critical infrastructure providers, but Senate Republicans balked at this notion.
But in response to both to advocates’ privacy concerns and the complaints of Senate Republicans that the bill meddled too much with private industry, Lieberman and Collins retooled the bill with several other senators and introduced a new and what they said was improved version on July 19.
The changes — which mandated that private companies share information first with civilian agencies like the Department of Homeland Security, as opposed to military and intelligence agencies — swayed some advocacy groups, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, which moved behind the bill. Still, they failed to stem opposition from others and from Senate Republicans.
Fight For the Future on Wednesday launched a website specifically in protest of the bill: “doyouhaveasecret.org,” which encouraged Web users to send a pre-written email voicing opposition to the bill to their senators using an automatic online form. “You need to draw the line this week or government spying becomes legal,” the website read. “Tell the Senate to vote NO on the Cyber Security Act of 2012. Now.”
Fight For the Future’s Cheng said that the website, along with other online efforts by other advocacy groups, helped stop the bill, at least temporarily.
“If you’re going to have a piece that affects privacy in any bill or trade agreement, the Internet is going to rise up,” Cheng told TPM.
Cheng characterized the defeat of the Cybersecurity Act of 2012 as one of three legislative victories that Internet advocacy groups and users have won this year, the first two being the failure of the House’s proposed Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and its Senate counterpart, the PROTECT-IP Act (PIPA) in January, and the second being the European Parliament’s wholesale rejection of the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) in March.
Still, given the Obama administration’s firm commitment to advancing cybersecurity legislation of some type, advocacy groups are on alert about a possible resurrection of the bill after the Senate’s August recess, or possibly next year, following the general election in November.
“Regardless of today’s vote, the issue of cybersecurity is far from dead,” said Michelle Richardson, ACLU legislative counsel, in a statement. “When Congress inevitably picks up this issue again, the privacy amendments in this bill should remain the vanguard for any future bills. We’ll continue to work with Congress to make sure that the government’s cybersecurity efforts include privacy protections. Cybersecurity and our online privacy should not be a zero sum game.”
However, Lieberman’s staff argues that privacy was never an issue with the bill.
“Neither the Cybersecurity Act, nor its failure to gain cloture would have any affect on ordinary web users,” said Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee spokesperson Leslie Phillips in a statement to TPM. “Our focus is only the most critical infrastructure networks that supply us with basic life services - electricity, water, transportation, etc.”
Editor’s note: Updated at the top to add statements from Senator Lieberman, and down below to add statements from Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee spokesperson Leslie Phillips at the end.