The House's solid bipartisan vote for a cybersecurity bill sends a message to the Senate: Now it's your turn to act.
Ignoring a White House veto threat, the House approved the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act, which would encourage companies and the federal government to share information collected on the Internet to help prevent electronic attacks from cybercriminals, foreign governments and terrorists.
The vote Thursday was 248-168, with 42 Democrats joining 206 Republicans in backing the measure.
Congressional leaders are determined to get a cybersecurity bill completed this election year but that may be difficult. The Obama administration and several leading Senate Democrats and Republicans want a bill that would give the Homeland Security Department the primary role in overseeing domestic cybersecurity and the authority to set security standards. The House bill would impose no new regulations on businesses, an imperative for Republicans.
In the coming weeks, the Senate will try to proceed on its bill by Sens. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, who have said the House bill is inadequate in protecting against cyberattacks. Senior Senate Republicans, such as Sen. John McCain of Arizona, argue that Homeland Security is ill-equipped to determine how best to secure the nation's essential infrastructure and has introduced his own bill.
Criticism of the administration's approach was echoed by House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
"The White House believes the government ought to control the Internet, government ought to set standards and government ought to take care of everything that's needed for cybersecurity," Boehner told reporters Thursday. "They're in a camp all by themselves."
More than 10 years after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, proponents of the House bill cast it as an initial step to deal with an evolving threat of the Internet age.
The legislation would allow the government to relay cyber threat information to a company to prevent attacks from Russia or China. In the private sector, corporations could alert the government and provide data that could stop an attack intended to disrupt the country's water supply or take down the banking system.
Faced with widespread privacy concerns, Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, and Rep. C.A. "Dutch" Ruppersberger of Maryland, the Intelligence panel's top Democrat, pulled together an amendment that limits the government's use of threat information to five specific purposes: cybersecurity; investigation and prosecution of cybersecurity crimes; protection of individuals from death or serious bodily harm; protection of minors from child pornography; and the protection of national security.
The House passed the amendment, 410-3.
The White House, along with a coalition of liberal and conservative groups and some lawmakers, strongly opposed the measure, complaining that Americans' privacy could be violated. They argued that companies could share an employee's personal information with the government, data that could end up in the hands of officials from the National Security Agency or the Defense Department. They also challenged the bill's liability waiver for private companies that disclose information, complaining that it was too broad.
Echoing those concerns were several Republicans and Democrats who warned of potential government spying on its citizens with the help of employers.
"In an effort to foster information sharing, this bill would erode the privacy protections of every single American using the Internet. It would create a `Wild West' of information sharing," said Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, the top Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee.
Said Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas: "Until we protect the privacy rights of our citizens, the solution is worse than the problem."
Countering criticism of Big Brother run amok, proponents argued that the bill does not allow the government to monitor private networks, read private emails or close a website. It urges companies that share data to remove personal information.
"There is no government surveillance, none, not any in this bill," Rogers said.
Among the amendments the House approved was one by Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., that put certain personal information off-limits: library, medical and gun sale records, tax returns and education documents.