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When the news cycle is focused on tragic events it is all too easy for other important stories to be ignored, particularly stories that might not have garnered much attention even had the news cycle been focused on the standard tales of pop stars and political inaction. Thus, with little coverage devoted to it, on Thursday (April 18, 2013) the US House of Representatives passed the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA).
What is CISPA? What does it do? According to a piece on freepress.net, CISPA:
“would protect companies like Facebook and Microsoft from legal liability when they hand over your sensitive online data to the federal government…The bill would permit the government — including the National Security Agency and the Department of Homeland Security — to use that information for matters that have nothing to do with cybersecurity. The whole process would, of course, take place behind closed doors, with no accountability to the public.”
The point being that currently “companies like Facebook and Microsoft” are not supposed to be sharing your information (unless there is a court order) and if they do they can be legally challenged for doing so. Or, as another piece on freepress.net put it (aptly titled “A Privacy-Killing Surveillance Machine”):
“Right now we have the right to sue Facebook or Google for compromising our online privacy. CISPA would end all that — and we would no longer be able to do anything online without fear of being spied on.”
As the article notes, CISPA passing the House does not mean that it has become law. It must still go to the Senate and then be signed by President Obama; while it is true that President Obama has threatened to veto the bill, and while this same bill was defeated last year, the political moment in which we find ourselves is now quite different.
After all, those who are pushing for this bill can now claim that this bill may have be needed for national security applications, and as we should all recall from the passage of the PATRIOT Act, national tragedies are often moments where all manner of retrograde legislation suddenly gets pushed through. Will Senators and President Obama stand strong in their opposition if those supporting CISPA make it a national security issue? Don’t be overly optimistic.
CISPA is a bad bill, one that will fundamentally alter the legal definitions of privacy in the US (for excellent explanations of CISPA I recommend the ACLU’s CISPA Explainer posts to get involved in the campaign against CISPA visit freepress.net) and the horrendousness of the legislation just goes to show the quality of legislators in the House of Representatives (the vote did not fall along party lines). And yet, while I have nothing positive to write about CISPA, it failing to become law is not any reason to breathe overly easy.
Will CISPA make it so that Facebook, Google, Twitter, Microsoft, Apple, and other corporations of questionable ethics can share your information with the government and with each other? Yes; however, it is folly to believe that even if CISPA fails that your information is private. The line “we would no longer be able to do anything online without fear of being spied on,” from freepress.net is suspect.
Turn your Facebook privacy settings to maximum, meticulously watch what you post, be careful to only “friend” your actual friends…it still does not really matter. Your information ceases to be private the moment you entrust it to Facebook (or Google or etc…). They may not be sharing it with the government but they’re looking through it, they’re sharing it with advertisers, and—let’s be honest—they’re probably sharing it with the government too (it’s just not totally legal for them to do so yet).
While Internet privacy is an important issue, and bills like CISPA are heinous, it should be remembered that privacy on the Internet should always be viewed skeptically. When you use services like Google and Facebook there is a tradeoff involved and what you are trading for the ability to search for stuff or see pictures of somebody’s vacation is much of what you may think of as your privacy.
This point was made by the author and historian Richard McChesney (who was part of founding Free Press) in a recent interview at Truthout (“Can Capitalism Tolerate a Democratic Internet? An Interview with Media Expert Robert McChesney”):
“There’s an old saying that applies to the Internet: If you get something for free, you’re not the customer. You’re the product. So what Facebook gets and what Google gets – they’re very similar – is that they know everything you do [while using their services]. It’s their private property; they can do with it as they please, and that is an enormous amount of information, and their primary interest in doing this is commercial. They’re going to take that information and sell it to other firms so they can use it to sell other stuff, or to politicians to sell ideas, or whatever.”
Will CISPA make this worse? Certainly, but it’s making a bad situation worse, not turning a wonderful open meadow into a factory’s discharge pool, the problem is the desire to see the Internet as that wonderful open meadow.
When you use the Internet (particularly when you use social networking sites or anything owned by Google) you should always remain skeptical of how private what you’re doing actually is, and considering that you get online through a device made by a major multi-national corporation using broadband from a major telecom corporation you may want to contemplate what a concept like freedom even means in such a context. Opposition to CISPA is important, but so is being an informed and intelligent Internet user.
So the next time you’re posting a status update or sending an e-mail (or putting up a blog post [I love big brother!]) remember that you’re also updating and e-mailing a corporation, a horde of marketers, and the government.
Even if CISPA doesn’t become law.
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