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04.27.12

House Clears Cybersecurity Bill Despite Presidential Veto Threat

John Boehner pushed through the bill known as CISPA despite a last-minute veto threat. But privacy concerns could still trump cyberterrorism worries to kill the bill.

After some high-level sparring between President Obama and John Boehner, the House on Thursday easily passed a cybersecurity bill that still faces stiff obstacles to becoming law.

The 248-168 vote split heavily, but not entirely, along party lines, with 28 Republicans defecting to oppose the measure and 42 Democrats supporting it. The vote capped a year of development and a furious month of dispute over the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act, or CISPA, and drew a last-minute veto threat from the president.

Over the past several weeks, CISPA faced heated opposition from civil-liberties and online-privacy advocates concerned about language that they feared would allow private information to be shared with the government and potentially used for purposes beyond CISPA’s stated goal of promoting cybersecurity. Last-minute amendments by Rep. Mike Rogers (D-MI) incorporated some of the changes sought by these groups. But they “didn’t go nearly far enough,” in the words of Trevor Timm, an activist for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, one of the groups that has been at the forefront of opposition.

“Obviously, it’s disappointing that it passed,” said Timm. “It was clear that momentum was in our favor, and that’s probably why Rogers moved up the vote.” A vote on the bill was originally scheduled for Friday.

Heather Molino, director of communications for the House Intelligence Committee, disputed Timm’s speculation. “We thought the amendments would take a lot longer. The amendments were quicker so we took it up tonight,” she said.

Now pushed out of the shelter of the House, CISPA’s fate is uncertain. On the other side of the Capitol, a group of senators led by Joe Lieberman (I-CT) and Susan Collins (R-ME) are pushing an alternate bill that addresses many of the concerns surrounding CISPA—but not all. In an opinion piece for The Hill, they called CISPA a “half measure.” Their alternative would include information-sharing between the government and private entities as in CISPA (though still without some privacy protections that activists are seeking) and security performance standards for critical infrastructure.

The battle lines have been drawn. It seems unlikely that it will ever become law.

Even if the Senate were to pass CISPA, Obama on Wednesday suggested that he would veto the bill if it reaches his desk in its current form. “The sharing of information must be conducted in a manner that preserves Americans’ privacy, data confidentiality, and civil liberties,” the administration said in a statement explaining that it “strongly opposes” the bill.

Boehner shot back that the administration is isolated because others involved in the debate “understand we can’t have the government in charge of the Internet.” He said the bill is needed “to build the walls that are necessary in order to prevent cyberterrorism from occurring.

A primary Democratic co-sponsor, Maryland Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger, declared that the president’s opposition felt like “a kick in the solar plexus.” 

But Molino, the House staffer, said “we think we have a great bipartisan bill. We took a good bill and we it made better. It got by the House by substantial margins. We’ll just have to see how the Senate plays out.”

But the battle lines have been drawn. It seems unlikely that it will ever become law—marking another victory for online-privacy advocates.