Sen. Joe Lieberman, chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, has introduced legislation that would grant the President emergency authority to protect the Internet before or during a cyber attack, a proposal that is raising the ire of business people, academics, and industry analysts. The committee unanimously approved the Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset Act of 2010 on June 28, moving the bill to the Senate for a full vote.
Among the Act’s components is the establishment of an office of cyberspace policy to be housed within the White House. The Act also calls for a new division within the Homeland Security Department to handle various cyber-security policies.
The one aspect of the bill eliciting the most concern is the so-called “kill switch,” which is how opponents describe the emergency authority given the President over the Internet in the event vulnerabilities are exploited. Lieberman did little to assuage this concern when on June 20 he told CNN’s Candy Crowley, “Right now, China, the government, can disconnect parts of its Internet in a case of war. We need to have that here, too.”
Bill Seen As Authoritarian
If enacted, the legislation would grant the President power to seize control of Internet assets in this country, similar to the control China exerts over the Internet within its borders, said Eric Garris, founder of antiwar.com.
“We’re not China; we have freedom here,” said Garris. “After 9-11, the Internet was essential to keep people from panicking. If the Internet had been shut down, there would have been more rumors and paranoia. There would be no facts getting to the people outside of what they could get on television. And there’s no guarantee that television wouldn’t be shut down as well.”
Garris added: “While fear-mongering may help Lieberman convince the public that it needs saving from the Internet, the only danger lurking in cyberspace is an authoritarian information monopoly. Washington’s most effective power grabs are always sold as needed security, but, predictably, they quickly manifest into little more than relinquished civil liberties.”
Legislative Trial Balloon
The legislation in its current form isn’t likely to pass, Garris says, but it could set the tone for more modest but still objectionable legislation in the future.
“Lieberman is sending this up as a trial balloon,” Garris explains. “They will send up a trial balloon at the extreme in order to get more moderate legislation through. It’s like the FCC’s attempts to take over regulation of the Internet. It marks a slow but steady government attempt to take over.
“The Internet scares the government because it empowers the people,” he added. “If they have information, then they can disseminate it. There are a lot of things on the Web and on YouTube that are extremely embarrassing to politicians. If it is not in control of the politicians, then it is the enemy of politicians.”
Freedom to Unplug Preferred
“There is certainly a precedent for a Presidential kill switch on the Internet, which can be found in places like Iran, North Korea, and China, not exactly ‘free and open’ political/economic societies,” said Patrick Gray, president of Prevoyance Group, Inc., a business strategy consulting company headquartered outside Charlotte, North Carolina.
“I don’t know that such an idea is in the best interest of U.S. citizens,” he continued. “Surely the Internet could be used as a source of attack by a nefarious entity, but the solution to mitigating such an attack seems relatively simple: Allow individual companies and government entities to make their own decision to unplug rather than putting the power to shut down the Internet in the hands of a single person.”
Gray added: “It may be cliché to invoke the founding fathers, but I have a hard time imagining any of them would advocate putting the power to disable one of the most amazing tools for free political discourse since the printing press in the hands of a single person or government entity.”
‘Horrific Consequences’ to Economy
Businesses would suffer as well, says Peter Vogel, chair of the Dallas office of Gardere Wynne Sewell LLP. “With the economic dependency [on the Internet] of virtually every major business in the United States, any President’s power to shut down the Internet could cause a significant economic disaster—bigger even than the 2008-09 meltdown. As it is, cyber-terrorists are trying to do this all the time now, and we barely avoid major shutdowns daily.
“When Russia took over the Internet in Georgia a few years ago, the consequences were staggering. I can see no benefit, only horrific consequences to the U.S. economy,” he added.
The effectiveness of such legislation is also questionable at best, said Derek Bambauer, assistant professor of law at the Brooklyn Law School.
“The largest problem with Sen. Lieberman’s proposal is that it won’t work,” Bambauer said. “The Internet’s decentralized design means there is no single kill switch that a President can flip to shut down the network. At best, the proposed legislation is a distraction; at worst, it will antagonize other countries and Internet stakeholders, whose support is essential to cybersecurity and to U.S. national security.
“The Internet is not a steel mill; it’s impossible to seize it, and counterproductive to suggest trying,” he concluded.
Phil Britt ([email protected]) writes from South Holland, Illinois.
Text of Senate Bill 3480 – Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset Act of 2010: