WASHINGTON--With Congress facing an impasse over new legislation to strengthen the country's defenses against cyberattacks, President Obama is widely expected to issue an executive order mandating new cybersecurity provisions.
That order, which could be promulgated in the coming weeks, would likely call on private-sector companies--but not compel them--to improve their coordination with government authorities as new threats and attacks materialize.
But even though many of the proposals in the anticipated executive order would not amount to binding directives, any White House action on cybersecurity will likely be met with sharp criticism from congressional Republicans, many of whom have been vocal in their opposition to any measure that would expand government oversight over digital infrastructure owned and operated by the private sector.
"Legislation usurping the collaborative efforts of private industry, security experts and academia is bad enough, but a unilateral executive order is even worse," Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), the chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, said on Wednesday at the State of the Net technology policy conference. "So I call on President Obama and his administration to disavow any attempts to bypass the checks and balances of Congress when we're addressing these issues. Instead, we should recognize that Internet freedom demands that government facilitate private cybersecurity efforts and the multi-stakeholder process and not try to replace it."
The cybersecurity debate in Congress over the past few years has seen broad agreement on the issue of removing barriers, real or perceived, to the sharing of information about threats and attacks between the public and private sector.
But some lawmakers, particularly a bipartisan group of senators, have pushed for a more comprehensive approach that would grant new regulatory authorities to the Department of Homeland Security to oversee the security efforts of private-sector operators of systems deemed critical infrastructure.
The Obama administration endorsed the Cybersecurity Act, a comprehensive bill that appeared headed for debate on the Senate floor before it was blocked by the GOP late last year.
Cybersecurity figures prominently on the legislative agenda for some members in the new Congress. On Wednesday, a group of senators introduced the Cybersecurity and American Competitiveness Act, renewing the effort to enact a comprehensive framework to address what is generally understood as a real and growing threat.
"The new Congress has a real opportunity to reach needed consensus on bipartisan legislation that will strengthen our nation's cybersecurity," John Rockefeller (D-W.V.), chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee and a backer of the bill, said in a statement.
"Throughout my five years of work on cyber, our military and national security officials and our country's top business executives have made it abundantly clear that the serious threats to our country grow every day," Rockefeller said. "The private sector and the government must work together to secure the networks that are vital to American businesses and communities. It is a priority this year to act on comprehensive cybersecurity legislation."
But the comprehensive approach will likely encounter the same strain of opposition that derailed cybersecurity legislation in the last congress, according to Bruce Mehlman, a former assistant secretary of commerce and currently a partner at the lobbying firm Mehlman Vogel Castagnetti and co-chairman of the Internet Innovation Alliance.
In a panel discussion at the State of the Net conference, Mehlman urged lawmakers to rally around narrow legislation that would address cybersecurity information sharing--an area where there is broad agreement--rather than insisting on the more controversial comprehensive approach.
"Information sharing has overwhelming bipartisan support," Mehlman says. "Everybody in the security infrastructure agrees, a smart information-sharing policy would advantage our cyber defenses, yet that's held hostage to a very real debate over whether the Department of Homeland Security has the competence and would be a value-added layer in oversight of critical infrastructure or not. It seems to me that debate should proceed as that debate, but that Congress, with the administration's support, instead of the opposition, should move forward with information sharing alone."