ARCHIVED 3/14/11

March 14, 2011

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Joseph Menn, Financial Times, 03/14/2011

The new Republican leadership of the US House has committed to pushing cybersecurity legislation, boosting the chances for passing laws aimed at shoring up protection of government and private entities dependent on the internet.

House Speaker John Boehner pledged to get something through even before taking the controlling spot in the chamber. Last December he tasked fellow Republican Texas Rep. Mac Thornberry with steering legislation through the many committees that have claimed ownership of the issue.
“He is committed to making something happen and he asked me to focus on it”, Mr Thornberry told the Financial Times. “He has been through enough intelligence briefings that he is not willing to let normal jurisdictional standoffs keep this from happening.”

While the White House and many in Congress recognise that internet crime, sabotage and espionage are growing strategic weaknesses; action has been hampered because of the multi-layered involvement of lawmakers charged with overseeing military, economic, homeland security and technology matters.

Last year, sweeping bills emerged from two different Senate committees that would have, among other things, mandated greater sharing of information on emerging threats between the government and private owners of vulnerable critical infrastructure, including electric utilities. Senate majority leader Harry Reid urged those bills to be combined, and a new draft could emerge within weeks.

There had been little movement in the House, however, and November’s US midterm elections – which ushered in Republican control of the chamber – increased concerns about co-operation.

The issue has not been strongly partisan and long-time participants in the process said they were encouraged by the statements by Mr Thornberry, who sits on the armed services and intelligence committees. Mr Thornberry helped draft cybersecurity bills as far back as 2003 and 2004, giving him a grounding that other elected officials lack.

“We have a good chance” of getting laws passed by the first half of 2012, said James Lewis of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who has advised both Congress and the Obama administration on legal approaches.”The market isn’t going to do it and I think people who have wrestled with the problems for more than a year so have come to the same conclusion.”
The scope and subjects of the bills are still very much up for debate, Mr Thornberry said, adding that “you shouldn’t try to solve all the problems in a single bound,” signalling that he favours a less inclusive approach than that of the Senate. The White House has also promised to provide substantive guidance.

Arguments are likely over tax cuts for businesses that invest in better security, increased regulation, privacy rules and the roles of the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Defense.

As lobbyists begin to take their positions, Mr Thornberry and Mr Lewis said this was a welcome indicator of momentum. On Tuesday, an unusual coalition that included the US Chamber of Commerce, major technology trade groups and the non-profit Center for Democracy & Technology, issued a 20-page white paper recommending a menu of market incentives, better coordinated federal research grants and steps to stimulate the private cyber insurance industry.

“We can change the economic dynamic we have now,” said Larry Clinton, president of coalition member the Internet Security Alliance. “Attacks are going through the roof and investment is either being deferred or going down at half the enterprises.”