Kill Switch? Not Really…

by Matthew L. Schafer

The newest development in the “Fight for Internet Freedom” is Sen. Joseph Lieberman’s [I-CT] “Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset Act of 2010” (A bill to amend the Homeland Security Act of 2002 and other laws to enhance the security and resiliency of the cyber and communications infrastructure of the United States).

The bill, which would create The Office of Cyberspace Policy and the National Center for Cybersecurity and Communication, was proposed “to modernize, strengthen, and coordinate the security of federal civilian and select private sector critical infrastructure cyber networks.”

“We need the capacity for the President to say, um… Internet service provider we’ve got to disconnect the American Internet from all traffic coming in from another country,” Lieberman said, in an interview with CNN’s Candy Crowley on State of the Union. “This is a matter of national security.”

Lieberman went on to say that China has the power to disconnect its Internet, and the United States should also have that power.  China may have been the wrong comparison for an Internet freedom debate.  His assertion about China’s Internet control added fuel to the Internet fire of discontent that is brewing amongst Tech and Internet stalwarts.

Lieberman, along with Sen. Thomas Carper [D-DE] and Sen. Susan Collins [R-ME], introduced the bill on June 10.  Soon after it was dubbed as the “Internet Kill Switch” by CNET’s Chief Political Correspondent Declan McCullagh.  McCullagh said that the “new U.S. Senate bill would grant the president far-reaching emergency powers to seize control of or even shut down portions of the Internet.”  According to the bill any use of such power would be limited to 30 days and would be done so in the “least disruptive manner.

McCullagh was joined en masse by the right ring echo-chamber and by other tech enthusiasts.  A recent Fox News article surmised, “A Senate bill would offer President Obama emergency control of the Internet and may give him a “kill switch” to shut down online traffic by seizing private networks— a move cybersecurity experts worry will choke off industry and civil liberties.”

The conservative blogger Glenn Reynolds, Instapundit, wrote frankly, “If they shut down the Internet, I’m getting out my gun. And I think everyone should take it as a signal to do the same — because one way or the other, it means the country’s under attack.”

Unfortunately for Lieberman and the misinformed many, the media have given little context to the Lieberman’s bill.  Luckily, Megan Carpentier at TalkingPointsMemo, broke down the bill.

If we look at section 706(c) of The 1996 Telecommunications Act, it becomes apparent that the President already has the power in a time of national security to shut down or disrupt internet traffic.  While this may not calm the fears of many, it does provide language to compare the new bill to.  Section 706(c) reads:

Upon proclamation by the President that there exists war or a threat of war, or a state of public peril or disaster or other national emergency, or in order to preserve the neutrality of the United States, the President, if he deems it necessary in the interest of national security or defense, may suspend or amend, for such time as he may see fit, the rules and regulations applicable to any or all stations or devices capable of emitting electromagnetic radiations within the jurisdiction of the United States.

Lieberman’s bill acts to clarify some of this vagary by amending the Patriot Act to say that in the event of a national security threat, the Director of the newly formed National Center for Cybersecurity and Communication would:

(A) immediately direct the owners and operators of covered critical infrastructure subject to the declaration under paragraph (1) to implement response plans required under section 248(b)(2)(C);

(B) develop and coordinate emergency measures or actions necessary to preserve the reliable operation, and mitigate or remediate the consequences of the potential disruption, of covered critical infrastructure;

(C) ensure that emergency measures or actions directed under this section represent the least disruptive means feasible to the operations of the covered critical infrastructure.

The fact of the matter is that the government has always had the power to control some aspects of the Internet infrastructure.  While Lieberman’s bill has shined the light on the issue if the government should have the ability to control the infrastructure, it is not a government conspiracy to take control of the Internet that some appear to think it is.  Indeed, it appears that Lieberman’s bill brings much need clarity to the original language in the Telecommunication’s Act.

If we want to discuss the bill, that should be encouraged.  It does, however, become less exciting after digging through the conspiracy theories and examining the real language.  The debate about Lieberman’s bill should start at the best ways to avoid a cyber attack and the possibly safe guards and system patches that can be developed in the private sector and installed on the system and not at “Does the Internet Need a ‘Kill Switch’?“, because no one is asking for one.


Flickr/jasonawhite

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About Matthew L. Schafer

Matthew L. Schafer graduated from the University of Illinois in 2009 with a Bachelor of Science in Media Studies. He later attended Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communication where he earned a Masters of Mass Communication and Georgetown University Law Center where he earned his J.D.
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3 Responses to Kill Switch? Not Really…

  1. Pingback: Lippmann Would Roll

  2. Pingback: In Article About Internet Censorship, Fox News Censors Comments Correcting Factual Errors « Lippmann Would Roll

  3. Pingback: How the Internet “Kill Switch” Bill Became the Bulwark of Internet Independence | Lippmann Would Roll

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