Congresswoman Diane E. Watson, who serves as Chair of the House Government Management, Organization, and Procurement Subcommittee, has just introduced new legislation proposing the creation of a “National Office for Cyberspace” within the Executive Office of the President. Rep. Watson’s bill, “The Federal Information Security Management Act of 2010” (H.R. 4900) amends the Federal Information Security Management Act (FISMA) of 2002 in an attempt “to strengthen and harmonize the federal government’s efforts to ensure the integrity of its information infrastructure.”
It’s hard to argue against that goal, and I won’t here. Clearly, our government needs to get it’s own house in order when it comes to network and data security. Nonetheless, an “Office for Cyberspace” gives me pause. Although I always try to be careful with slippery slope arguments (per Eugene Volokh’s excellent advice here), I think there are good reasons to fear that any Executive Branch-level “Office for Cyberspace” would quickly come to take on a wide variety of other policy matters beyond just federal cyber-security issues. The Federal Communication Commission’s past and recent history of regulatory mission creep is not encouraging in this regard. The agency has always looked to grow its mission and powers, and it has often succeeded. Of course, to be fair, the fundamental ambiguity of certain clauses and phrases within the agency’s charter document– the Communications Act of 1934 — left the door open to creative readings of things like what was in “the public interest,” or what constituted “fair and non-discriminatory” practices.
If, by contrast, the powers of this new “National Office for Cyberspace” are tightly limited to the mission of simply ensuring that the federal government keeps its own house in order — and doesn’t try to regulate our digital houses at the same time — then perhaps we have nothing to worry about. But, I remain a bit paranoid about these things and fear that the old “Hands Off the Net!” dream dies a little more each day because of bills like this.