CISPA vote means companies can’t promise to protect privacy

Google, Facebook, Twitter, and other Internet companies and e-mail providers will be prohibited from making legally binding promises to protect your privacy, thanks to a vote this afternoon in the U.S. House of Representatives.

By a 5-8 vote, the House Rules committee rejected a bipartisan fix to the CISPA data-sharing bill that would have ensured companies’ privacy promises — including their terms of use and privacy policies — remained valid and legally enforceable in the future.

The vote came after Rep. Pete Sessions, a Texas Republican who’s the committee’s influential chairman, urged his colleagues to vote against the amendment (PDF). All of the committee’s eight GOP members voted against the amendment, and all the Democrats supported it. (See CNET’s CISPA FAQ.)

It also came hours after a formal veto threat from the Obama administration, citing privacy and other concerns about CISPA. A House floor debate is scheduled to begin tomorrow, which now will not include a vote on the amendment.

“We’re disappointed that such a commonsense reform won’t even get a vote,” Will Adams, a spokesman for Rep. Justin Amash, a Michigan Republican who co-sponsored the amendment, told CNET this evening. “When Americans sign up for service with their phone company or their Internet provider they should be entitled to the privacy protections that the companies promise them. Giving companies legal cover to break their contracts with consumers is bad policy and a disservice to the American people.”

Congress should have been able to debate the amendment this week because it would ensure Americans’ privacy rights, said Rep. Jared Polis, a Colorado Democrat and former Internet entrepreneur. That includes, he said, the rights of “users who have given their information to the company under the explicit assurance of the terms of use that it wouldn’t be shared.”

Otherwise, Polis said, CISPA means Internet and other companies will be “completely exonerated from any risk of liability” if they open their databases with confidential customer information to the feds and even private-sector firms.

The amendment was only six lines long. It would have altered the latest version of CISPA (PDF) by saying the legislation does not authorize a company “to breach a contract with any other party,” including a terms of service agreement.

If it had been adopted during the floor debate, it would have allowed e-mail providers, social networks, and other companies to pledge not to share customers’ confidential information with the National Security Agency, Homeland Security, or any other organization under CISPA — and made that pledge legally enforceable in court.

CISPA is controversial because it overrules all existing federal and state laws by saying “notwithstanding any other provision of law,” including a privacy policy or terms of service agreement, companies may share certain confidential customer information “with any other entity, including the federal government.”

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