A controversial cyber bill is included in the final text of the must-pass "omnibus" spending deal to be voted on in U.S. Congress this week, even as civil liberties advocates warn it is nothing more than an expansion of government surveillance powers in disguise.
This means the bill is likely to pass "without meaningful debate or transparency on the final text," digital rights group Fight for the Future said Wednesday.
Lawmakers have been pushing for some form of the bill to pass since the Senate passed one version, known as the Cyber Information Sharing Act (CISA), in October and the House of Representatives approved two similar texts in April—but critics say all previous privacy protections have been stripped away, as the bill's Republican backers shut out the public and other members of Congress from the negotiation process.
Opponents also criticized GOP leaders' use of the omnibus to carry the cyber bill into law, as the spending deal is expected to be approved by President Barack Obama when it reaches his desk.
"Congress has failed the Internet once again," said Evan Greer, campaign director at Fight for the Future.
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The bill grants tech companies immunity from lawsuits for sharing private user data with intelligence agencies. Its supporters say it will help efforts to safeguard against cyber attacks, while opponents say it would expand government spying operations and reduce privacy and free speech protections for consumers. As the ACLU pointed out in a statement Wednesday, information shared between tech companies and intelligence agencies like the FBI or the NSA could be used "for criminal prosecutions unrelated to cybersecurity, including the targeting of whistleblowers under the Espionage Act."
The ACLU also pointed to another troubling provision buried in the text—revocation of visa waivers granting traveling privileges to people who have visited or hold dual-citizenship in predominantly Muslim countries, such as Syria, Iraq, Iran, or Sudan.
"Once again, members of Congress are using the government funding bill to pursue their extremist agendas," said Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the ACLU. "Sneaking damaging and discriminatory riders into a must-pass bill usurps the democratic process and is irresponsible."
Greer continued, "It’s clear now that this bill was never intended to prevent cyber attacks, it’s a disingenuous attempt to quietly expand the U.S. government’s surveillance programs, and it will inevitably lead to law enforcement agencies using the data they collect from companies through this program to investigate, prosecute, and incarcerate more people, deepening injustices in our society while failing to improve security."
"[N]ow it’s up to President Obama to prove that his administration actually cares about the Internet. If he does he has no choice but to veto this blatant attack on Internet security, corporate accountability, and free speech," Greer said.