Several groups Monday launched a week of protests against a controversial proposed cybersecurity bill they claim would eviscerate online privacy rights.
The Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA) was introduced last November and is scheduled for a vote in the U.S. House of Representatives next week.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT), the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Fight for the Future and other groups say that the legislation would allow Internet companies and the government to collect virtually any private online user content under the pretext of cybersecurity.
The privacy groups contend that CISPA would dismantle existing protections provided by the Federal Wiretap Act and the Electronic Communications Privacy Act and other laws.
They are hoping to stop the bill, or force amendments to it, by rallying widespread Internet opposition. Leaders say the groups will jointly call on supporters to contact local lawmakers to express their opposition.
The groups have also launched a Twitter campaign that aims to show lawmakers what kind of data the government could access if the bill is passed.
Earlier this year, similar online protests prompted lawmakers to abandon efforts to pass two extremely unpopular anti-piracy bills -- the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect IP Act.
"We are deeply concerned about the information-sharing component of this bill," said Rainey Reitman activism director at the EFF. "Companies would be allowed to ship any kind of personal information to the government without any judicial oversight."
She added that the law would allow government agencies to bypass existing privacy laws and requirements to obtain court orders to acces personal information in Internet users.
Reps. Mike Rogers (R-MI) and Dutch Ruppersberger (D-MD) introduced CISPA in the House in November 2011.
Backers said the legislation would help improve cybersecurity by making it easier for ISPs and companies such as Facebook and Google to collect and share threat information with the government.
Specifically the bill would allow Internet companies to "identify and obtain cyber threat information to protect [their] rights and property."
CISPA would allow private companies to monitor user activity and collect information related to such activity. The data could also be shared, without judicial oversight, with government agencies like the Department of Homeland Security and the National Security Agency.
The bill affords Internet companies a great deal of immunity for conducting such information monitoring and sharing.
Rights groups say that the bill's ambiguous wording leaves it open to all sorts of potential problems.
For instance, there's no language that would prohibit companies from monitoring private email messages, chat messages and Facebook postings simply by claiming a cybersecurity purpose. CISPA doesn't provide Internet users maany ways to sue companies for unfairly collecting and sharing personal information with the government.
According to the EFF, the definition of key terms such as "cybersecurity threat information" is dangerously vague, and could allow Internet companies to monitor and read private emails and online messages.
The opponents also contend that the legislation would allow government agencies to use information provided by Internet companies for a variety of reasons. An early version of the bill contained language that would have allowed law enforcement to go after copyright infringers using the data gathered by Internet companies, they noted.
The legislation wouldn't force companies to share threat data with the government; any sharing of information would be voluntary. "We shouldn't have to rely on the promises of companies," not to share data with the government, Reitman said.
"The major concern we have with CISPA is the fact that it is much too broad," said Kendall Burman, senior national security fellow at the CDT.
"It defines the information that private companies can share with the government in an almost unlimited way," Burman said. The information collection and sharing permitted under CISPA would do more to enable surveillance than serve any cybersecurity purpose, she added.
Jaikumar Vijayan covers data security and privacy issues, financial services security and e-voting for Computerworld. Follow Jaikumar on Twitter at @jaivijayan, or subscribe to Jaikumar's RSS feed . His e-mail address is email@example.com.