House Passes CISPA in Surprise Vote; Opponents Will Continue to Fight in Senate

The House passed the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA) in a surprise vote late Thursday despite a veto threat from the White House and opposition from civil liberties groups that say the bill undermines existing privacy law and would allow private companies to spy on American citizens.

The House passed CISPA by a vote of 248 to 168, with votes for and against coming in from both parties. A vote was expected on Friday, but the House came to a vote soon after debating the bill. The Senate will now consider the bill.

CISPA is designed to break down barriers between the government and private business and allow for open sharing of intelligence on cyber threats, such as foreign hackers. Big tech and web firms, including Facebook, AT&T and IBM, support CISPA and hope the government will provide them more information on cyber threats.

Civil liberties and Internet freedom groups such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and the ACLU claim the bill goes too far and would allow private companies and the government to circumvent existing privacy laws that prevent domestic spying and allow big web firms to hand over private data and information, such as emails, to the Department of Homeland Security and other agencies. The ACLU and the EFF say they will continue to oppose the bill in the Senate.

“Cybersecurity does not have to mean abdication of Americans’ online privacy,” said ACLU legislative counsel Michelle Richardson. “As we’ve seen repeatedly, once the government gets expansive national security authorities, there’s no going back.”

Senior White House officials said Wednesday that President Obama would veto CISPA because the bill fails to protect personal privacy and does not do enough to protect the nation’s core cyber infrastructure.

With online momentum leftover from the fight against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), activists launched a massive Internet campaign to stop CISPA that included more than 100,000 Tweets to members of Congress and more than one million petition signatures.

“Hundreds of thousands of Internet users spoke out against this bill, and their numbers will only grow as we move this debate to the Senate,” said EFF Activism Director Rainey Reitman.

CISPA’s opponents also claimed that the government could use personal information gathered by private companies to crackdown on citizens for a variety of offenses beyond cybersecurity, such as late taxes or immigration violations. Lawmakers recently worked with civil liberties groups, however, to pass amendments clarifying that the government can only use intelligence gathered under the act to address cybersecurity threats, threats to national security, threat of bodily harm to individuals and child pornography.

The House rejected additional amendments offered by Democrats and supported by CISPA opponents that would have prevented information from private citizens from landing in the hands of the National Security Administration, which was caught in 2006 working with AT&T to data mine Internet traffic and gather thousands of phone records from customers.