Pending legislation that would grant the President of the United States the power to pull the plug on the country's internet access in a declared "emergency" returned to the forefront this week on the same day Egyptians faced a nation-wide blackout designed to curtail widespread government protests. Egypt flipped it's so-called "kill switch" -- will the U.S.?
The bipartisan bill is sponsored by Maine Sen. Susan Collins, the ranking Republican on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. The bill -- called “The Protecting Cyberspace As A National Asset Act of 2010” S.3480 -- was approved by a Senate panel this week.
S. 3480 would create a new government agency called the National Center for Cybersecurity and Communications. The NCCC would have sweeping powers to control the Internet, including the ability to shut down the web for a 30-day period. Considering that at least 60% of Americans get their daily news fix from the Internet, this is a staggering proposal.
Blaze writer Mike Opelka also notes that groups such as the ACLU see this proposed legislation potentially giving the President a giant kill switch for the Internet. Before the bill moves to the Senate floor for a vote, the ACLU has formally noted their disapproval.
While Collins insists her bill would not grant the president the same powers as Egypt's Hosni Mubarak has exercised this week, many are wondering what kinds of implications the measure would have on Americans' freedom.
Many in the high-tech world join the ACLU in questioning the bill as well.
PC Magazine's Dan Costa warned Friday that the United States must learn from Egypt's "state-sponsored denial of service attack" on its citizens. "The surprising thing isn't that a corrupt, authoritarian regime would launch this kind of state-sponsored denial off service attack on its own citizens. Nor that it is willing to jeopardize its economy by cutting its businesses off from world markets. No, the thing that surprises me is that the U.S. government has plans for its own Internet Kill Switch," Costa wrote.
The legislation was first introduced last summer by Sens. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine), and the former has promised to bring it to the floor again in 2011. It isn't called anything as obvious as the Internet Kill Switch, of course. It is called the "Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset Act." Who could be against that? Anyone who's watching the news on TV today, that's who.
The proposal calls for the Department of Homeland Security to establish and maintain a list of systems or assets that constitute critical cyber-infrastructure. The President would be able to be able to control those systems. He or she would have ability to turn them off. The kicker: none of this would be subject to judicial review. This is just a proposal, mind you, but it certainly warrants concern. Particularly given the heavy-handed example being provided by Egypt.
The bill, co-sponsored by Sen. Joe Liebermann, I-Conn., previously sailed through the Homeland Security Committee just before the 111th Congress ended, and will have to be reconsidered in the new 112th Congress.
Intended to protect the country against "significant" cyber threats, Sen. Collins says the bill "would provide a mechanism for the government to work with the private sector in the event of a true cyber emergency."
"It would give our nation the best tools available to swiftly respond to a significant threat," she added.
An aide to the Homeland Security committee described the bill as one that does not mandate the shuttering of the entire internet. Instead, it would authorize the president to demand turning off access to so-called “critical infrastructure” where necessary.
An example, the aide said, would require infrastructure connected to “the system that controls the floodgates to the Hoover dam” to cut its connection to the net if the government detected an imminent cyber attack.
What’s unclear, however, is how the government would have any idea when a cyber attack was imminent or why the operator wouldn’t shutter itself if it detected a looming attack.
About two dozen groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Library Association, Electronic Frontier Foundation and Center for Democracy & Technology, were skeptical enough to file an open letter opposing the idea. They are concerned that the measure, if it became law, might be used to censor the internet.
“It is imperative that cyber-security legislation not erode our rights,” (.pdf) the groups wrote last year to Congress.
On Friday, executives with London-based Vodofone came under scrutiny after admitting they had complied with the Egyptian government's request to shut down internet and mobile phone access in Egypt. According to a report from the Wall Street Journal, Vodofone Group CEO Vittorio Cola expressed concern with the state-ordered blackout, but the company determined that the request was "legitimate under Egyptian law," and therefore complied with the request.
In addition, Al Jazeera reported that protesters on Friday destroyed Vodafone stores in Cairo, among other locations tied to the ruling regime.
In the meantime, Costa insists that such a "kill switch" initiative could be devastating for the United States -- not just because of the real impact on individual liberties, but also because of widespread economic ramifications:
The U.S. telecommunication industry is much more complex and far more decentralized [than Egypt's]. To do something similar in the U.S. would require a lot more than four phone calls. There are simply too many connections inside the nation already for them to be silenced. Also, since our economy is more dependent on the Internet obstructing the free flow of information would be disastrous. Still, the push for a U.S. Internet Kill Switch is here, but no one understands the consequences.
The fact is, no one in the U.S. should ever have the right or the ability to take the Internet offline. As an editor of a purely online publication (we made the switch from print a few years ago), it's very clear to me that freedom of the press relies more than ever on the Internet. No one in the U.S.—or anywhere—should have the right to shut it down.