(NEW YORK) MintPress — While the Arab Spring highlighted the power of the Internet and social media to facilitate political reform, it also revealed the extent to which governments can use technology to track and crack down on their own people. President Obama last month threatened to impose sanctions on Syria and Iran for doing so. Ironically, according to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the U.S. and the EU are also guilty.
“The obsession to control the internet is showing we are not heading in the right direction, and the countries of the west are not immune to criticism,” said Dunja Mijatovic, the representative for freedom of the media for OSCE member countries.
“Last year we commissioned a study on media freedom in 56 states. The results are not very rosy. Governments are trying to restrict or suppress in the interests of security,” Mijatovic asserted. “Legislation is very hasty.”
Irony amid Internet celebrations
As internet pioneers gathered last week in Geneva to celebrate the inaugural class of inductees for the Internet Hall of Fame, the European Parliament was debating the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), an international intellectual property treaty which has been described by some in the tech community as “SOPA on steroids,” a reference to the controversial U.S. anti-piracy legislation that was postponed in Congress after the biggest online protest in history.
The fate of ACTA is also in question after thousands demonstrated throughout Europe, especially in Germany, Poland and the Netherlands. The OSCE’s Mijatovic has also raised the issue with the European Parliament.
But back in the U.S., Congress was making another attempt at strengthening government control over online information as it debated the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA), which passed in the House of Representatives on April 26.
Controversy over CISPA
CISPA, which was introduced in the House by Rep. Mike Rogers (R-MI), would allow for the sharing of internet traffic information between the government and certain technology and manufacturing companies. The stated aim of the bill is to help Washington investigate cyber threats and ensure the security of networks against cyber attack.
While it has caused a similar, albeit smaller, reaction to the one caused by SOPA, there is a clear distinction between the two pieces of legislation: SOPA dealt mainly with piracy, whereas CISPA is entirely about security.
Supporters maintain that it is a quick and easy way for private and public sectors to join forces in fighting threats against the country. Proponents include several trade groups, including the Business Software Alliance, CTIA — The Wireless Association, National Defense Industrial Association and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Major telecommunications companies such as AT&T, IBM, Verizon, and Intel also back the bill.
Facebook was vehemently opposed to SOPA but has written to Congress in support of CISPA, stating “When one company detects an attack, sharing information about that attack promptly with other companies can help protect those other companies and their users from being victimized by the same attack.”
Some critics, though, believe Facebook and other tech companies are supporting CISPA because it would protect them from potential lawsuits: The bill makes it much more difficult for a user to sue a company if it gives his or her information over to the government.
Competing bills have put a lot more responsibility on the shoulders of businesses, who would have to be more careful about what information is okay to share and what isn’t.
For the most part, those who oppose CISPA argue that its language is too broad, and it gives both corporations and the government the power to intercept, share or block user information as long as it is part of the fight against “cyber security threats.”
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has, not surprisingly, spoken out against the legislation. After it was passed by the House, it issued a statement calling it “a dangerously overbroad bill that would allow companies to share our private and sensitive information with the government without a warrant and without proper oversight” and that it would give “companies the authority to share that information with the National Security Agency or other elements of the Department of Defense, who could keep it forever.”
And now, even tech giant Mozilla has publicly slammed CISPA, labeling it an “alarming threat to privacy,” marking the first time any company has denounced the legislation.
President Obama for his part has vowed to veto the bill if it passes in its current form, but some critics contend that threat is a political stunt and carries no more weight than his promise to veto the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which he signed on New Year’s Eve.
In fact, many say the White House doesn’t like CISPA because it doesn’t give enough power to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
The debate now moves on to the Senate.