A web surfer in silhouette. (AP Photo)
The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, which has for 222 years promised that “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
That’s an old commitment that members of Congress swear an oath to uphold.
But members of the House on the right and the left have concluded—correctly—that it applies to the most modern of technologies.
Amash and Ellison, Rohrabacher and Grayson, Sensenbrenner and Conyers were among the 127 members of the House (ninety-eight Democrats and twenty-nine Republicans) who last week voted against the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act.
Described by the Electronic Frontier Foundation as “Digital Big Brother,” CISPA is a sweeping proposal to bypass existing privacy law to enable corporations to spy on personal communications and to pass sensitive user data to the government.
“CISPA is a poorly drafted bill that would provide a gaping exception to bedrock privacy law,” says EFF Senior Staff Attorney Kurt Opsahl. “While we all agree that our nation needs to address pressing Internet security issues, this bill sacrifices online privacy while failing to take common-sense steps to improve security.”
It is this disregard for the Fourth Amendment that united Democrats and Republicans, progressives and libertarians in opposition to the measure. In the face of a 38-1 lobbying advantage for corporate proponents of the legislation (who spent have spent more than $600 milion over the past two years to influence Congress ), key members of the House on both sides of the aisle rejected the spin and focused on the objections raised by civil libertarians and grassroots privacy activists.
Conyers summed up the common-sense concerns:
In its current form, CISPA would allow the federal government to potentially have access to a private citizen’s email, medical records, and other personal information. Unfortunately, the House did not approve amendments to require companies to use reasonable efforts to remove unrelated private information from what they turn over to the government.
In addition, CISPA contains provisions that limit private companies from liability. If a company makes a poor cybersecurity decision based on information it obtains that harms public, the company would not be held responsible for their actions.
Our nation faces very real cyber threats, but this bill is not the right way to address them.
CISPA actually won 288 “yes” votes in the House, but the 127 “no” votes—coming from principled members on both sides of the aisle—sent a strong message to the more deliberative Senate. In combination with a grassroots campaign spearheaded by tech-savvy privacy activists and a threatened veto by President Obama, the bipartisan House opposition appears to have convinced Senate leaders have signaled that they plan to put the legislation on hold. The American Civil Liberties Union on Thursday suggestion that CISPA looks to be “dead for now.”
Groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the ACLU and Free Press will remain vigilant in opposition to proposals that the latter warns “would obliterate our privacy laws and chill free expression online.” They recognize that the fight to block CISPA is a multi-year struggle that is likely to take many forms.
But we should all recognize the importance of what has been accomplished.
It is often said that Washington doesn’t work, that partisans cannot work together. Yet, a left-right coalition in support of an old ideal and a new urgency with regard to online privacy is mounting an inspired, and effective, defense of the Bill of Rights.
What does public shaming mean in the Web 2.0 era? Read Cole Stryker’s take.