Internet Founder Berners-Lee: CISPA a Threat to Privacy Rights

Tim Berners-Lee is the latest to speak out against CISPA, the controversial cyber-security legislation scheduled to be voted on by the House next week.

The debate over the controversial Cyber-Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA) continues to ramp as the expected House of Representatives vote next week draws near.

Tim Berners-Lee, the man credited with inventing the Internet and a staunch advocate for a free and open Web, is the latest to wade into the fray, telling the British publication The Guardian that CISPA not only puts U.S. citizens at risk, but also people around the world.

The legislation €œis threatening the rights of people in America, and effectively rights everywhere, because what happens in America tends to affect people all over the world,€ Berners-Lee said in the interview. €œEven though the SOPA and PIPA acts were stopped by huge public outcry, it€™s staggering how quickly the U.S. government has come back with a new, different threat to the rights of its citizens.€

Berners-Lee€™s comments came as part of a larger discussion about similar legislation being proposed by the British government. Both proposals represented a dangerous expansion of government surveillance capabilities that threaten the basic human rights of citizens, he said.

There also are indications that the White House may be concerned about CISPA as well.

CISPA is the latest Congressional Internet security proposal that proponents say would give the government and businesses the necessary tools to defend against cyber-attacks. However, a growing and vocal group of organizations€”from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Reporters Without Borders to the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT)€”are pushing back against what they see has a dangerous intrusion by government into the personal lives of Internet users.

They have kicked off a week-long campaign aimed at urging people to contact their representatives and implore them to vote against CISPA. The hope is that an overwhelming campaign will kill CISPA, just as it did earlier attempts, including the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA).

A key difference now is that some major tech companies€”including Facebook€”that had opposed SOPA and PIPA before now support CISPA, which would make it possible for the government and private businesses to share information about cyber-threats.

In an April 15 post on Facebook€™s blog, Joel Kaplan, the social networking company€™s vice president of U.S. public policy wrote that CISPA will give Facebook and other organizations the information they need from the government and each other about cyber-attacks, which would ultimately help its more than 845 million users.

€œWhen 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,€ Kaplan wrote. €œSimilarly, if the government learns of an intrusion or other attack, the more it can share about that attack with private companies (and the faster it can share the information), the better the protection for users and our systems.€

In an April 17 blog post, David Hoffman, director of security policy and global privacy officer at Intel, said that CISPA €œrepresents a critical first step in facilitating the sharing of the threat and vulnerability information that will help government and industry to better protect themselves and their citizens and customers, and will also help maximize the effectiveness of innovative security technologies that rely on this information.€

However, opponents worry that not only could CISPA and similar laws elsewhere squelch the freedom and openness that the Internet was built upon, but that it also would give the government too much personal information about Internet users, threatening their privacy. That was the point Berners-Lee made to The Guardian when he spoke about the similar proposal in England.

€œThe amount of control you have over somebody if you can monitor Internet activity is amazing,€ he said. €œYou get to know every detail; you get to know, in a way, more intimate details about their life than any person that they talk to because often people will confide in the Internet as they find their way through medical Websites €¦ or as an adolescent finds their way through a Website about homosexuality, wondering what they are and whether they should talk to people about it."

There also are indications that the Obama Administration may not be entirely comfortable with CISPA. In a statement to The Hill newspaper April 17, Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council, said strong privacy protections and mandatory security standards for critical infrastructure systems€”such as electrical grids and water supplies€”must be included in a cyber-security proposal.

Without mentioning CISPA by name, Hayden said that €œwhile information-sharing legislation is an essential component of comprehensive legislation to address critical infrastructure risks, information-sharing provisions must include robust safeguards to preserve the privacy and civil liberties of our citizens. Legislation without new authorities to address our nation€™s critical infrastructure vulnerabilities, or legislation that would sacrifice the privacy of our citizens in the name of security, will not meet our nation's urgent needs.€