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Lawmakers, industry spar over cybersecurity standards

The American flag f, ... ]

The American flag f, ... ] // AP file photo

While Senate lawmakers wrangle over compromises that could bring cybersecurity legislation up for a final vote, industry and advocacy groups are lining up to make sure their interests are represented in the bill.

The Senate is debating a procedural vote that could allow the chamber to move ahead with the Cybersecurity Act (S.3414). Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., is hoping to vote on the motion to proceed on Thursday if Republicans and others can be assured that their amendments will be considered. If no agreement is reached, a vote could be held on Friday.

The bill's sponsors say that their proposals are a good compromise between establishing fully mandatory cybersecurity standards and the status quo, where companies are left alone to secure their networks.

Originally, the Cybersecurity Act would have allowed the Homeland Security Department to set and enforce standards for certain critical infrastructure networks. Under the compromise language, standards would be developed by a multiagency committee and businesses.

Republicans, however, are echoing industry concerns that the bill’s provisions could become regulations, and Senate Commerce Committee ranking member Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, said that a substitute bill, the Secure IT Act, will be introduced as an amendment.

Meanwhile, that debate played out on the sidelines where businesses increased their lobbying efforts ahead of a possible vote.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday pinned cybersecurity as a “key vote” and said it strongly opposes the Cybersecurity Act, despite the compromise language.

“The chamber believes that, at a minimum, more time is needed for the Senate to more fully assess this deeply flawed proposal,” the group said in a letter sent to Capitol Hill, in which it endorses the GOP's Secure IT Act. “While the program is being characterized as ‘voluntary,’ and participating entities may receive limited protection from punitive damages resulting from a cyber incident, the standards could be used to impose new obligations on participating companies.”

That was a message echoed by IBM, which sent a letter of its own to lawmakers on Thursday. The incentives for companies to enact standards aren’t strong enough, and the Cybersecurity Act could still allow agencies to establish mandatory rules, wrote Christopher Padilla, IBM’s vice president for governmental programs.

“The ‘voluntary’ performance requirements envisioned in S. 3414 would quickly transform into a de facto government regulatory scheme on privately owned critical infrastructure,” he said in the letter.

As Kevin Richards, vice president of the industry advocacy group TechAmerica, told reporters on Thursday: “We want to make sure standards are voluntary-voluntary rather than mandatory voluntary.”

The bill’s lead sponsor, Senate Homeland Security Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., defended the need for standards to protect certain critical networks, even if they are owned by private companies.

“Since antiquity, societies have chosen to adopt safety standards to protect the physical structures of everyday life--starting with the homes we live in, but also our offices, factories, and critical infrastructure, like power plants and dams,” he said in a floor speech.

And not all companies oppose Lieberman’s bill. Oracle and Cisco, for example, signaled on Thursday that while they hope to continue to work on the standards issue, they support the bill.

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