What would happen if the government had access to information you share on Facebook and could access it without you knowing? For now, the Orwellian question remains hypothetical. But if a bill before Congress is approved, it might enable that very thing.
The Cyber Intelligence Sharing Protection Act, or CISPA, boasts bipartisan support and the approval of many high-profile businesses, notably Facebook. Its creators claim it will prevent “catastrophic attack to our nation’s vital networks - networks that power our homes, provide our clean water or maintain the other critical services we use every day.”
But the bill has received harsh criticism from groups such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT), and Anonymous. Now, get ready to put all those acronyms to use. The EFF accuses Congress of using fear of cyber threats to distract the public from the bill’s infringements on free speech. To that, CDT adds encroachment on Americans’ fourth amendment right to freedom from unreasonable search and seizure. According to CDT, “CISPA has a very broad, almost unlimited definition of the information that can be shared with government agencies […] is likely to lead to expansion of the government’s role in the monitoring of private communications [… and] is likely to shift control of government cybersecurity efforts from civilian agencies to the military.”
It's scary stuff, and groups like Free Press, Demand Progress, and Avaaz.org have jumped to action. Their “Stop CISPA” petitions are currently circulating through social media channels, including Facebook. The response has been extensive enough to warrant a response from Facebook’s Vice President of U.S. Policy, Joel Kaplan. On Friday, Kaplan wrote a letter assuring users that Facebook would not betray their trust. The comments below the letter are overwhelmingly negative, with many using the space to share information about the bill and others threatening to move to Google+.
Facebook isn’t the only one responding. To combat negative press, “House Intel Comm” launched a Twitter account on April 11th. The tweets were composed in glowing Newspeak. “Rogers-Ruppersberger #cyber bill keeps the federal govt’s hands off the Internet, & doesn’t allow the govt to stop access to websites.” Spin this fine would give George Orwell a run for his money. Fortunately, such tweets only show how out-of-touch its authors are with people who actually use the internet. A “best of” collection has been immortalized by the bloggers of Techdirt, where the comment section shows that few have been fooled by the propaganda campaign.
If anything, it is the comment areas of these sites that should give us hope. Americans are not the passive, blundering fools we have been made to seem in the past. When given room to voice our opinions, we’re a feisty bunch (no wonder they’d like to keep tabs on us). The major thing missing from discussion in the comments section is that CISPA is not the only option. The CDT supports a bill proposed by Dan Lungren (R-CA) called the PRECISE Act, calling it “a strong alternative to CISPA by balancing cybersecurity, industry and civil liberties concerns.” This is the bill we should be talking about, in Congress and comments sections alike.
Image: "A New Method of Macarony Making, as practised at Boston in North America," satirical illustration depicting two American colonists tar and feathering an English customs agent at Boston, Massachusetts. Mezzotint, 152 mm x 113 mm. Courtesy of the British Museum, London. This work is in the public domain in the United States.