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WTF Wednesday: Tech giants help pass cyber surveillance bill

Catherine McIntyre

Remember that day Wikipedia didn’t have all the answers? That day you turned to the world’s trustiest encyclopedia but all it said was, “Imagine a world without free knowledge”?

Last year on January 18, thousands of websites protested against the major U.S. internet censorship bills, Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protest IP Act (PIPA). Wikipedia blacked out its site for a full 24 hours and Reddit took down its services from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Google—still browsable—blacked out its logo for the day and prompted users to get informed on internet freedom.

The bills aimed to punish websites “dedicated to the theft of U.S. property.” But shutting down these rogue copyright infringers would also mean blocking legitimate websites with loose, inadvertent connections. Companies, big and small, couldn’t afford this. So two days after massive protests on the web and in the streets, congress shelved SOPA and PIPA.

But now internet censorship is back on the table. Haven’t noticed? That’s because web giants have gone silent—not black—on the issue.

Hacktivist group, Anonymous, called for another blackout on Monday, this time to protest Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA). But instead of blocking content for internet freedom, major tech companies—like TechNet, whose members include Google and Facebook—are actually supporting the “cyber-security” bill.

In an attempt to protect the U.S. from hackers, CISPA, if passed, will let companies share web users’ information with the government. Essentially, it will override websites’ privacy policies while letting the government have at your info warrant-free.

So why—after all the fuss over SOPA and PIPA—is CISPA so weakly contested?

It’s because the bill is only bad for internet users—not websites or tech companies themselves. It could actually benefit companies by letting them unload responsibility on the government when fishy online activity arises. And since the bill immunizes companies against lawsuits, they risk nothing by breaking privacy contracts and giving it up to The Man.

The House of Representatives passed CISPA on April 18 with 288 to 127 votes. But before taking effect, it has to go to the Senate. This is the second year in a row the Senate will vote on the bill. It was blocked last year, but this time there’s less hope the Senate will be so reasonable.

For one, CISPA promises protection at a time when Americans are sensitive to security breaches. The Senate may take this opportunity to flex some defensive muscle and pass the bill (in part) to repair the vulnerable American psyche.

But more likely, CISPA may succeed where SOPA and PIPA didn’t because it protects corporations and targets individuals. And those in favour are paying good money to see the bill legislated.

According to MapLight, lobbyists who support CISPA donated about $84 million to House members, while opponents donated just $18 million.

“I am not surprised to see corporations spending significant amounts of money lobbying on CISPA,” Rainey Reitman, activism director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation and vocal CISPA opponent, told U.S. News & World Report. “Keep in mind that CISPA has sweeping liability protections for companies, making it a sweetheart deal for companies. That’s no coincidence.”

If the bill does pass, internet users in Canada could be at risk too. Last spring, Harper and Obama signed the “Beyond the Border” declaration, committing to (among other things) harmonizing cyber-security practices and objectives, and “assessing and addressing threats together.”

Sure, these “commitments” aren’t exactly binding, but it wouldn’t be terribly un-Canadian to follow suite with American policy. Plus, renewed support for CISPA may breathe new life into bill C-30—Canada’s own attempt at internet surveillance law, ridiculously spun as the Protecting Children from Internet Predators Act. Protest against bill C-30 took off last year when safety minister, Vic Toews declared “You can either stand with us or with the child pornographers.” Ultimately, we chose the latter.

Now, it’s a year later and the States are in the same awkward dilemma—sacrifice web freedom and privacy, or join the ranks of us child-porn supporters up north. True, the Senate may still strike down the bill or Obama may act on his threat to veto CISPA. But at this point, clinging to the successful SOPA and PIPA protests may just breed false hope, because—let’s face it—corporate interest is what got those bills defeated and corporate interest is what’s helping this new one pass.

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