Yesterday, I wrote that “the Internet has a new enemy,” and its name is CISPA, short for the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act of 2011. And it’s true: this poorly crafted piece of “cybersecurity” legislation is irking concerned Web citizens the world over.
Using our Chartbeat analytics tool, I saw wave after wave of users flood into the article, from all parts of the globe. North Dakota, Sweden, Portugal, Mexico, New York — everybody, it seems, is interested and concerned about this bill that critics (rightly) believe could threaten the types of information we can access online, as well as our privacy and freedom of speech.
In less than 24 hours, a petition on Avaaz.org entitled, “Save the Internet from the US,” has racked up more than 300,000 signatures, asking the federal government to drop CISPA. By the time you read this article, that number will likely be well over half a million, or more. And the anti-CISPA movement already has its own hashtag, a sure sign of meme-ability, which is vital to any online campaign.
And yet, I can’t shake the feeling that the Internet community will lose this battle, that CISPA will pass — that there will be no blackout, this time around.
The first problem is the nature of the threat this bill poses: At its core, CISPA is about companies and the government sharing information. Now, to anyone concerned with privacy, this is a big issue, especially considering that CISPA places absolutely no explicit limits on the type of information that may be shared with the government, or between private companies, as long as it is somehow related to cyber threats. To me, and a lot of you, that’s terrifying.
For most people, however, sharing information about ourselves is just the way things work nowadays. We post every aspect of our lives online, from what we’re eating to our location to all the gritty details of last night. These companies already know all our secrets. In other words: privacy just ain’t what it used to be. And I just don’t see every Jack, Jill, and John getting their knickers in a knot over something that sounds like what they do on a regular basis — share information — or which many people believe is already happening: that Facebook, Google, Twitter, and every other Web company out there hands over our private information the second Uncle Sam looks at them funny. We are in Brave New World, not 1984.
Second — and this is the real problem — the CISPA opposition does not yet have the technology industry on its side. In fact, many of the most important players, the ones with the big scary guns, have already embedded themselves in the enemy’s camp. Facebook, Microsoft, Oracle, IBM, Intel, AT&T, Verizon — all of them (and many others) have already sent letters to congress voicing support for CISPA. And that should come as no surprise. Whereas SOPA and PIPA were bad for many companies that do business on the Internet, and burdened them with the unholy task of policing the Web (or facing repercussions if they didn’t), this bill makes life easier for them; it removes regulations and the risk of getting sued for handing over our information to The Law. Not to mention doing what the bill says it’s going to do: protecting them from cyber threats.
In short: Supporting CISPA is in these companies’ interest. Supporting SOPA/PIPA was not.
This means that the Internet community is on its own. No technology company is going to buy a full-page ad in The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal condemning CISPA by their own volition— unless we somehow force them to. And the only way to do that is to set our sights on them first, and on the actual bill second.
Unfortunately, such a scenario creates a political problem for the CISPA opposition. By scrambling to get the Internet and technology industries on the side of the Internet users, it creates an opportunity for the bill’s many supporters in Washington to push forward without the hassle of a concerted resistance.
Now, I could very well be wrong about this. I hope I’m wrong — I hope all of you reading this prove me wrong. I would be absolutely giddy if everything I’ve just said is rendered moot by the shock and awe with which the CISPA opposition fights against this bill. CISPA is a terrible piece of legislation, one that very well could result in the government blocking access to websites on the basis of copyright infringement, or sites like Wikileaks under the guise of national security*. And just because I’m playing the defeatist doesn’t mean that the masses are incapable of rising up against CISPA, and bury it away in the catacombs of legislative hell — they, we, absolutely are. But until I see more than online petitions and Twitter hashtags, my bet is on the bad guys.
*Update: In a conference call with reporters on April 10, CISPA co-sponsors Reps. Mike Rogers and “Dutch” Ruppersberger said that CISPA does not give the government the authority to block access to any websites, which is true. What remains unclear, however, is whether the government may use information shared under CISPA to block access to sites for reasons of cyber security or national security.