What is CISPA?

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The Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act has kept the Internet buzzing this week, leading many to ask, "What is CISPA?"

Basically, CISPA would allow companies and government agencies to share information they considered to be a "cyber threat" with other private companies or the government and not be penalized for such sharing.

The divisive cybersecurity legislation comes up for a vote in the House Friday, and civil liberties groups, Internet groups, and a swarm of political leaders are taking a strong stance against the bill.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) maintains CISPA is a serious threat to domestic privacy laws and threatens to undercut vital privacy protections.

The ACLU argues the bill is even more insidious than the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), stating that the legislation "would give the government, including military spy agencies, unprecedented powers to snoop through people's personal information–medical records, private emails, financial information-all without a warrant, proper oversight or limits."

Even the Obama Administration opposes the bill, siding with the Internet forces on this one. President Barack Obama said Wednesday he would veto the bill if it passed in current form.

What's the Big Deal with CISPA?

GOP presidential hopeful Ron Paul summed up the CISPA outrage.

"CISPA permits both the federal government and private companies to view your private online communications without judicial oversight provided that they do so of course in the name of cybersecurity," said Paul. "Simply put, CISPA encourages some of our most successful Internet companies to act as government spies, sowing distrust of social media and chilling communication in one segment of the world economy where America still leads."

The Center for Democracy and Technologies, one of CISPA's prime adversaries, is highly concerned with CISPA's definition of what information can be shared with government agencies. The Center said the interpretation is wide open and supplants all other privacy laws, while increasing the government's visibility of private communication.

In addition, CISPA is apt to transfer control of government cybersecurity efforts from civilian agencies to the military.

Of paramount concern is that once the information is "shared" with the government, it could be used for other purposes aside from cybersecurity.

The Growing Cybersecurity Concern

CISPA results from the country's increasing focus on cybersecurity.

Cybersecurity is a legitimate government concern. Cyberattacks have gotten more sophisticated and more targeted to specific operations in the past couple of years. They also go undetected for long periods of time.

FBI Director Robert Mueller in March warned that cyberattacks soon will become the No.1 terrorist threat to the U.S.

But the threat to individuals' privacy is also at stake.

"The president has called for comprehensive cybersecurity legislation. There is absolutely a need for comprehensive legislation," Alec Ross, a senior adviser of innovation for U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, told the Guardian. "But part of what has been communicated to congressional committees is that we want legislation to come with necessary protections for individuals."

Tim Berners-Lee, the man recognized as the true inventor of the Internet who has also been vocal against the bill, pointed out how quickly these kinds of bills recur in Congress now that Washington is focused on cybersecurity.

CISPA "is threatening the rights of people in America and effectively rights everywhere because what happens in America tends to affect people all over the world," Lee told the Guardian. "Even though SOPA and PIPA [Protect IP Act] 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."

The CISPA Fight

In an unusual unified political stance, the two dominant political leaders supporting CISPA are from opposing parties: Rep. Mike Rogers, R-MI, and Rep. C.A. "Dutch" Ruppersberger, D-MD.

Despite the flurry of mounting resistance, Rogers feels confident the bill will pass, and acknowledges he is willing to make changes right up to presentation on the House floor. The bill has strong support in Congress and amid private companies, including internet heavyweights Facebook Inc. and Microsoft Inc. (Nasdaq: MSFT).

Rogers told reporters there is a reason "every corner of the private sector loves this bill. They need help. They need it now. And they are absolutely under siege."

President Obama's Office of Management and Budget issued a statement Wednesday that the administration was committed to fighting cybersecurity threats, but in a way that preserved Americans' privacy.

"Citizens have a right to know that corporations will be held legally accountable for failing to safeguard personal information adequately," wrote the OMB. The legislation "would inappropriately shield companies from any suits where a company's actions are based on cyber threat information identified, obtained, or shared under this bill, regardless of whether that action otherwise violated federal criminal law or results in damage or loss of life."

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