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Defeating CISPA will take the power of Google and others

Protesting online privacy.

If you came across some websites on Monday that don’t seem to be working, don’t panic–it’s probably an online protest against the latest round of proposed internet privacy laws. Over the weekend, the hackers of Anonymous called for websites to join the blackout on Apr. 22, to make a statement against the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act that was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives last week.

Here’s the group’s video:

CISPA will make it easier for internet service providers and web companies such as Google, Twitter and Facebook to voluntarily share user information with authorities by giving them more protections against privacy lawsuits. That’s why politicians such as Senator Mike Rogers, from Michigan, suggest that such companies actually support the bill, with opposition coming only from “teenagers in their basements.”

“The very companies that you say are uncomfortable with this support this bill. The people who are in the business of prosperity on the Internet think this is the right approach,” he said.

With the blackout, Anonymous is hoping to spur the same sort of support against CISPA as emerged last year to kill the Stop Online Piracy Act. Large websites such as Google, Wikipedia and Reddit joined in on that protest.

While CISPA may have passed the House vote by a margin of 288 for and 127 against, it still has to pass the U.S. Senate and a potential presidential veto, which Barack Obama has threatened.

The legislation would affect non-Americans, since subscribers of U.S.-based web services could have their information handed over to authorities in the country. Canadian privacy advocates are therefore no less opposed to CISPA.

“We are in an extremely important time in history where we are evolving our laws to deal with the shift to the digital world,” says Chris Houston, chief executive of SurfEasy Online Privacy. “This is an important and necessary endeavor that needs to be done openly and with a clear goal of preserving and extending the civil rights and freedom that today govern our physical world.”

Toronto-based SurfEasy, which sells products that encrypt and shield users’ identities, is supporting Fight For the Future, the same organization that organized the SOPA protest last year.

“It is far too technically easy for our online lives to be monitored and shared without our knowledge,” Houston says. “This is why there needs to be serious scrutiny over any new legislation like CISPA that introduces broad new powers for sharing of our online lives without due process or notice.”

It would seem that the bill actually runs counter to the interests of many big internet businesses – after all, if users’ information can be more easily handed over to authorities without their say, won’t they just share less of that information with ISPs and web services? Companies such as Facebook and Google are built entirely on accumulating as much data on users as they’ll voluntarily give, so if those users suddenly cut back on that info, the companies will inevitably suffer.

That’s why it’ll be interesting to see if any of the big corporations that supposedly support CISPA do indeed join in the blackout, or whether they sit back and let others do the fighting instead. The other intriguing question to watch is whether the bill can be defeated without their support. Internet and civil liberties advocates loudly proclaimed their victory over SOPA last year, but will they be able to score a win without big companies such as Google backing them?