- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 10, 2013

A key congressional panel will vote in private on Wednesday on a new law that would allow private companies to share cybersecurity information with federal agencies, drawing criticism from advocates who say the controversial measure should be debated in public.

The intelligence committee, which is working on the bill, will hold its meeting in a secure room in the basement of the new Capitol Visitor Centre, which is specially designed so that classified documents can be examined there and classified information be openly discussed. The public are not admitted and no cameras or recording devices are permitted.

“It is an open mark up in the sense that members can discuss it afterwards, or even during the event,” intelligence committee Spokeswoman Susan Phalen told The Washington Times. “But it is being held in a closed space, so the public and press cannot attend.”

Ms. Phalen said the mark up was being held there in case there was a need, when considering some provision or other of the law, “to discuss classified cyber threat information.”

It was “more efficient” to hold the whole event in the closed space, rather than adjourn the mark up and troop lawmakers into a classified area every time threat information came up, she said.

But interest groups said a closed meeting is unacceptable.

“The i2Coalition believes that cybersecurity legislation can be done right only when all stakeholders share in the legislative process,” David Snead, head of public policy for the Internet Infrastructure Coalition, said in a statement.

The group represents more than three dozen companies “who build the nuts and bolts of the Internet,” according to its website. It is one of several technology industry, civil liberties and privacy groups, who are concerned about or outright opposed to the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA).

“Ensuring the security of the Internet involves more than national security,” said Mr. Snead. Internet “privacy, stability and accessibility issues must be discussed in an open and frank manner,” he added.

Congress has failed for more than five years to pass legislation to help secure the nation’s computer networks — especially those that run vital services like power and water — against cyber attack from hackers, terrorists or foreign militaries.

Proponents say CISPA protects privacy while allowing private sector firms that run the Internet and other vital national networks to share information with the government in real time, allowing the Department of Homeland Security and the National Security Agency to monitor for potential enemy activity.

Many technology firms and industry groups also support the proposed new law, including AT&T, IBM, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and Comcast, according to Maplight, a non-profit which tracks lobbying expenditures and political donations.

Collectively, the bill’s supporters gave more than $3.25 million to members of the intelligence committee between July 2010 and July 2012, Maplight reported after analyzing federal data.

By contrast, the groups opposing the bill — including the ACLU — gave $212,208 over the same period.

However, as Maplight point out, more recent figures might tell a different story.

“Several major web companies that had supported the bill in the last session of Congress (Facebook, Microsoft, and others) have withdrawn their support for the bill this session, citing concerns about privacy,” Maplight notes.

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