By Juan Williams - 05/29/12 09:00 AM EDT
Imagine a country where every email, every electronic banking transfer, every blogger’s political rant can be handed to the FBI and National Security Agency. There is no need for a warrant from a judge. There is no legal protection for personal privacy. It is simply up to your Internet service provider to decide what is suspicious and send it to the government.
Imagine that the Congress approves of this radical challenge to civil liberty by saying the new law is the best way to prevent terrorists from creating chaos in the financial system, plotting violence and hacking into big companies in a conspiracy to destroy the nation with a “Digital Pearl Harbor.”
This alarming story is close to becoming reality. With the best of intentions, Congress and the White House are trying to prevent terrorists from using the Internet to destroy the nation. But they are dangerously close to opening the door to erosion of privacy rights in America.
The Republican majority in the House is on the side of giving Internet service providers, private companies and the government a whole new box of tools to fight terrorism. That includes the right for the government and private business to share information on how to build protections against cyberthreats. Under the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act, or CISPA, Internet service providers will be free of any legal restraint against disclosing any information to prevent a terror attack.
The big surprise here is that the support for the GOP position includes most of the Tea Party Caucus, including conservative rock stars Michele Bachmann and Allen West. They normally condemn any increase in government power.
Also in that camp is Maryland Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. He is co-sponsor of CISPA. In fact, about a quarter of House Democrats voted for the bill. Several big high-tech companies, from Microsoft to Facebook, have voiced their support for the GOP approach.
On the other side of the argument is the Democratic majority in the Senate, and the Obama White House. Outside opposition is coming from the American Civil Liberties Union, The Constitution Project, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
The Democrats also have bipartisan backing. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) agree with the idea of preserving individual privacy by first requiring corporations to adopt basic standards for Internet security of confidential records and data.
Fearing that the House bill is not clear about what constitutes a “cyberthreat,” the Democrats want stronger safeguards on privacy and against any crackdowns on political protests.
The current debate over CISPA in Congress calls to mind the debate between the Democrats and Republicans earlier this year over the Stop Online Piracy Act – SOPA.
In that case Congress tried to set clear rules to stop thievery of intellectual property. But the bill was defeated because of staggering overreach. It gave the federal government broad new powers to shut down websites for mere suspicion of engaging in copyright infringement. There was no due process if the government got it wrong.
The same is true in the case of the current debate over a cybersecurity law. The House bill will allow companies to share Internet users’ data with the FBI and National Security Agency with no legal oversight.
That means Facebook, Google and Yahoo could pass along anyone’s online communications, under pressure from the government or to protect against second-guessing in case a terrorist does hack into their systems.
This bill is the latest manifestation of the post-911 war on terror mentality that brought us warrantless wiretaps, indefinite detention and the Patriot Act. Since 2002, almost 845,000 Americans have been given top-secret security clearance – many of them are private contractors not government employees.
Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) calls the CISPA episode evidence of an emerging “cyber industrial complex.” Internet freedom is a cornerstone of Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) and the movement of young activists he leads.
CISPA proponents are right that we need to protect our cyberinfrastructure from cyberthreats. The worldwide terror threat is very real.
Last week, the Department of Homeland Security released a video of al Qaeda calling for electronic jihad.
But an essential part of the America being protected is our civil liberties, our constitutional freedoms.
“People Power” stopped the online piracy bill because it was too heavy-handed. Once again, it will be up to “People Power,” to make sure that when the House and Senate go into conference on this bill they do not emerge talking about good intentions while putting the nation on the path to George Orwell’s hell – Big Brother watching your every move.
Juan Williams is an author and political analyst for Fox News Channel.