White House pushes for stalled cybersecurity bill

Several senators have called for an amendment to address privacy concerns

It's urgent for the U.S. Senate to pass a cybersecurity bill now stalled because of opposition from several lawmakers, officials from the U.S. White House said Wednesday.

Four White House officials called on the Senate to pass the revised Cybersecurity Act, a bill that would create a new mechanism for businesses to share cyberthreat information with each other and with government agencies.

The bill would also create a new intra-agency council to work with private companies to develop cybersecurity standards that businesses could voluntarily adopt. The bill would offer incentives to companies that volunteer for cybersecurity programs, including protection from lawsuits related to cyberincidents and increased help and information on cybersecurity issues from U.S. agencies.

It's "imperative" for the Senate to pass comprehensive cybersecurity legislature, John Brennan, assistant to President Barack Obama for homeland security and counterterrorism, said during a press briefing. The bill would give cybersecurity professional the "tools they need to deal with this increasingly sophisticated and pervasive threat," he added.

The Cybersecurity Act is held up in the Senate over disagreements over what amendments should be allowed to the bill. Several Republicans have opposed the bill, sponsored by Senators Joseph Lieberman, a Connecticut Independent, Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, and three Democrats.

The bill would hand too much authority to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican, said last week.

The bill "would do very little to improve our country's national security," he said. "In fact, in its present form, I believe the bill before us would do more to harm our country's economy and expand the size and influence of the federal government -- specifically the Department of Homeland Security -- than anything else."

Other Republicans are asking for the Senate leadership to allow a vote on the Affordable Care Act, a controversial health-care bill, in exchange for a vote on the cybersecurity bill.

Senator Mark Udall, a Colorado Democrat, criticized Republicans for holding up the bill. "I believe the bill is long overdue, and we simply cannot afford not to act," he said on the Senate floor Wednesday.

Another group of senators, mostly Democrats, have pushed for an amendment to remove provisions that would allow ISPs and other Web companies to monitor their customers' online activities and take countermeasures against cyberthreats. The provision would protect the ISPs and other companies against customer privacy lawsuits.

Fifteen senators, led by Senator Al Franken, a Minnesota Democrat, are pushing for the amendment. The bill, as written, would violate Internet users' privacy, Franken said.

"Americans shouldn't have to worry that their Internet service providers are snooping in their e-mail or accessing the files on their computer for the wrong reasons," Franken said in a statement. "While the Cybersecurity Act does a lot to protect the privacy of American consumers, it also contains provisions that would hurt consumer privacy by allowing ISPs and other companies to monitor email and deploy countermeasures indiscriminately."

But the White House officials said the bill would help protect the U.S. from cyberattacks. "The nation's security is at risk," Brennan said.

"It literally keeps me awake at night thinking the Senate won't act on this," added Eric Rosenbach, deputy assistant secretary of defense for cyber policy.

Supporters of the bill are hoping to force a vote on the bill yet this week.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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Grant Gross

IDG News Service
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