Feds pressing for Internet control

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After the backlash Congress faced earlier this year from Internet activists over the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), one might hope members had learned a lesson, and would actually carefully consider legislation that would dramatically impact the fundamental privacy of the magnificent communications mechanism that is the Internet. Alas, it is not to be. No sooner had the dust begun to settle from the SOPA mess than the House began once again to ram through unnecessary legislation with serious privacy implications for users of the Internet, in the hallowed name of “cyber security.”

SOPA, which had been under consideration by the Congress earlier this year, would have censored speech on the World Wide Web by giving the federal government unprecedented new power to block websites arbitrarily deemed to infringe on intellectual property rights. Internet users and prominent websites, including Google and Wikipedia, responded loudly, and Congress backed away.

Unfortunately, Washington’s drive to exert control over the Internet and intellectual property rights did not die when the wheels fell off SOPA. That craving has resurfaced with the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA), which the Republican majority in the House passed late last week.

Much like SOPA, CISPA began as an obscure piece of legislation dealing with a complex issue — one that is outside the grasp of many members of Congress, almost all of whom grew up before the Internet age. Supporters claim CISPA, which would update the National Security Act of 1947, is needed to protect the nation’s infrastructure and businesses against Internet-based attacks and other illicit activity on private networks through the sharing of information.

However, groups opposing CISPA point out correctly that it would bring unchecked surveillance to the Internet, making the legislation just as dangerous to civil liberties as SOPA. Writing recently at Techdirt, for example, Leigh Beadon notes that CISPA would allow the government “to search information it collects under [it] for the purposes of investigating American citizens with complete immunity from all privacy protections as long as they can claim someone committed a ‘cybersecurity crime.’”

There are certainly reasons to modernize pre-Internet era laws that affect the Internet — to protect against hackers and attacks by foreign governments or hostile non-government organizations, for instance. However, CISPA goes too far. By employing a legislative machete rather than a scalpel, CISPA would modernize the law at the cost of demolishing Fourth Amendment privacy protections for Internet communications. Julian Sanchez, a research fellow at the Cato Institute, explains the underlying goal could be achieved without the broad language of CISPA, if Congress would simply invest the effort to “figure out which specific kinds of information are useful to security professionals without compromising privacy.”

Unfortunately, but true to form, Congress does not appear to care. CISPA was rushed to a floor vote late last week and passed by the GOP-controlled House of Representatives on a vote of 248 to 168. The Internet big boys, including Google, Wikipedia and others who had rallied against SOPA just weeks earlier, were silent this time.

The White House has issued a veto threat, but that should not ease the fears of Americans concerned about the broad reach of CISPA. President Barack Obama has made similar threats in recent months, only to back down at the last minute. Moreover, Obama’s threat was issued because he does not believe CISPA permits sufficient regulatory leeway.

The fight over CISPA now moves to the Senate, where the law will most assuredly pass unless Americans start lighting up the switchboard in Washington and demanding the federal government stop or at least slow its march to exert absolute control over all manner of Internet communications.

Bob Barr represented Georgia’s Seventh District in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1995 to 2003. He provides regular commentary to Daily Caller readers.