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Bill Banning Porn, Personal Email on Agency Computers Under Fire on Unrelated Grounds

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As the House moved to take up legislation that would prevent employees from accessing personal email and pornography on government computers, the White House threatened to veto the measure because of objections to civil service provisions included in the legislative package.

House Republicans have positioned the package as a piece of government reform legislation. But the broader package contains several other workforce provisions that the Obama administration and many Democrats find unpalatable. These include expedited firing procedures for senior federal executives and additional reporting requirements about labor union activities in federal agencies.

In a statement on the legislation issued Tuesday evening, the White House called these provisions “misguided.”

The bill, known as the Federal Information Systems Safeguards Act, also would allow agencies to block access to personal webmail without consulting unions, and mandate that the White House create guidelines that prohibit access to porn or explicit websites on government computers.

"It's embarrassing and hard to believe that this committee and the Congress actually has to firm up this law, but the committee has heard numerous examples of federal employees spending significant amount of time viewing explicit materials on their federal computer during federal workforce hours and being paid by federal taxpayers," Oversight Chairman Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, said at Rules Committee meeting Tuesday evening.

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Some of the more high-profile episodes of porn viewing were recounted in audits of the Interior Department, the National Science Foundation, the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Environmental Protection Agency.

But Democrats take issue with other pieces of the government accountability package. For instance, the broad brush nature of the email use crackdown could violate other federal laws, according to Democratic members of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

The measure allows an agency to "take any action" it determines is needed to reduce security weaknesses.

On Tuesday, Chaffetz described the package of measures as a "good government" bill, while Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Md., called it an "anti-federal employee" measure.

The Obama administration agrees with the Democrats, for the most part.

The White House statement said the bill "would set policy that would undermine existing governmentwide cybersecurity and records management policies."

The email safeguards measure stems from recent incidents at the Homeland Security Department and the Office of Personnel Management, where labor groups fought efforts there to shut off personal email access.

The American Federation of Government Employees filed a grievance against DHS’ Immigration and Customs Enforcement bureau in 2014 for blocking webmail, and the Federal Labor Relations Agency sided with the union. When OPM last July locked employees out of Gmail, Facebook and other social networks after a massive background check hack, the union threatened to sue.

The legislative proposal, which the committee approved by a nearly party line vote in March, is designed to overturn the 2014 FLRA decision.

It is "not clear that blocking personal email is necessary," Committee Ranking Member Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., said in written minority viewpoints. "The committee has not held a single hearing on this bill to explore the potential impact it might have on security, human rights, privacy, contracting, or transparency protections."

Committee Republicans argued rules protecting federal unions increase the likelihood of data breaches.

“If agency directors are obstructed from taking immediate action to protect employees’ information without first going through collective bargaining, federal agencies are more vulnerable to attack,” Chaffetz and bill sponsor Rep. Gary Palmer, R-Ala., said in a Feb. 24 Washington Times op-ed. “Putting collective bargaining rights above security is preposterous.”

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