WASHINGTON — Defying a veto threat from President Obama, the House on Thursday passed a bill that encourages intelligence agencies and businesses to share information about threats to computer systems, including attacks on American Web sites by hackers in China and other countries.
The vote was 248 to 168, as 42 Democrats joined 206 Republicans in backing the bill. The “no” votes were cast by 140 Democrats and 28 Republicans, including a number who described the measure as a potential threat to privacy and civil liberties.
Under the bill, the federal government can share classified information with private companies to help them protect their computer networks. Companies, in turn, could voluntarily share information about cyberthreats with the government and would generally be protected against lawsuits for doing so if they acted in good faith.
At the start of debate, Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., complained that the measure would allow companies to share information with the government, including the National Security Agency. The legislation, Polis said, would create a "false choice between security and liberty."
Rep. Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said the bill was necessary to stop the potential threat of computer attacks from Russia, China, North Korea and Iran. He disputed claims that the measure would lead to spying on Americans.
"There is no government surveillance, none, not any in this bill," said Rogers, R-Mich.
Rogers and the committee's top Democrat, Rep. C.A. "Dutch" Ruppersberger of Maryland, planned to add an amendment that would limit the government's use of threat information to five specific purposes: cybersecurity; investigation and prosecution of cybersecurity crimes; protection of individuals from death or serious bodily harm; protection of minors from child pornography; and the protection of national security.
Still, some liberals and conservatives adamantly opposed the measure.
"Until we protect the privacy rights of our citizens, the solution is worse than the problem," said Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas.
A coalition of groups and individuals, including the American Civil Liberties Union and former Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., expressed concern that the legislation would allow companies that hold personal information about an employee to share it with the government. The information could come from Internet use or emails and be relayed to defense and intelligence agencies, such as the NSA.
"Once in government hands, this information can be used for undefined `national security' purposes unrelated to cybersecurity," the groups wrote lawmakers.
White House and outside groups' opposition is not expected to derail the House bill, which has bipartisan support.
The administration backs a Senate bill sponsored by Sens. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, giving Homeland Security the authority to establish security standards.
But that legislation is stalled and faces opposition from senior Senate Republicans.