Sir Tim Berners-Lee, Inventor of the World Wide Web “This is for everyone”

Last year Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the British computer scientist who invented the World Wide Web, made a surprise appearance at the opening ceremony of the Olympics. He sat at a computer and delivered the message “This is for everyone”. The World Wide Web is one of the greatest inventions the world has ever seen. It created the free-flow of information in cyberspace that made the digital age possible. With new technologies, however, come new opportunities for warfare.

America has become increasingly worried about cyberthreats. Though Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s invention was designed for the easy flow of information, mechanisms can be put in place to retrieve that information illegally. Fears about cyberthreats and cyberespionage have led the American House of Representatives to pass the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA), designed to protect America from efforts by individuals or foreign governments to illegally exploit confidentiality, security, or other data by giving law enforcement agencies the ability to retrieve relevant web data about users from private companies. The controversial bill would provide legal protection to companies who share data, even customers’ personal details, with the government.

Cybersecurity is often not considered important news because of its technical nature or because it is seen as not much of a threat. The reality is very different. Many countries are now engaging in cyberwarfare: this February, a White House report named China and Russia “aggressive and capable collectors” of sensitive information. From October last year, the New York Times was targeted in a Chinese cyber-espionage operation after a critical report on then-current Premier, Wen Jiabao. Clearly cyberthreats and cyberespionage is very much alive. President Obama himself has said “America’s economic prosperity in the 21st century will depend on cybersecurity.”

It is likely that because CISPA deals with cyberthreats to America, personal details will be passed on to law enforcement agencies. This could be either a civilian agency, such as the Department of Homeland Security; or an intelligence agency, such as the National Security Agency (NSA). For those of you who enjoy a good conspiracy theory, you may be interested to know the congressional district of Charles Albert “Dutch” Ruppersberger, a Democrat from Maryland who co-authored the Bill, covers the home of the NSA in Fort Meade.

Obviously, CISPA has not been well-received by those who want to protect their personal data online. Groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Reporters Without Borders and the American Library Association have all criticised CISPA for the lack of privacy clauses, which would have been easy to put in.
In fact, the House Rules committee rejected a bipartisan amendment to the bill that would have made sure existing measures made by companies to protect its customer’s data would remain legally valid by 5 votes to 8. The amendment was six lines long and would have forbidden the company to “…breach a contract with any other party.” This would have included all agreements previously made, such as a terms of service agreement, while allowing the rest of CISPA’s measures to go ahead relatively unchanged.

In response to the harsh opposition to CISPA, Republican Representative Mike Rogers (Michigan) said that the CEOs of large companies supported CISPA and those who opposed the bill were “people on the internet, a 14 year-old tweeter in the basement.” He received a barrage of angry tweets from many opponents of the bill over 14 who worked in the IT and communications industries.

President Obama has also expressed concern over the reach of the bill and has threatened to veto it if it reaches his desk in its current form, though this is beginning to look unlikely. Again, this was due to concerns over the bill’s information sharing provisions.

For opponents of the bill, CISPA is the latest attack on internet privacy. Last year Wikipedia and Reddit coordinated a service blackout in response to the Stop Piracy Online Act (SOPA) and accused it of internet censorship. The flow of information that the internet provides is so precious, and certainly legitimate limitations need to be put in place to protect companies and governments from cyberthreats. Cybersecurity, however, should not infringe on an individual’s right to have their personal data stored securely (and CISPA could go ahead relatively unchanged if clauses were put in to protect an individual’s privacy). In its current form, CISPA does not strike this balance.

BY: Matthew Jones

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