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Worries Abound Over US Cyber-Emergency Internet Policy

Worries Abound Over US Cyber-Emergency Internet Policy

Sen. Lieberman has categorically stated that there is no "kill switch" in the bill he cosponsored, and that "it is impossible to turn off the Internet in this country." Its purpose is to protect "the most critical infrastructures that Americans rely on in their daily lives -- energy transmission, water supply, financial services, for example -- to ensure that those assets are protected in case of a potentially crippling cyberattack."

By C. Donald Brown
02/26/11 5:00 AM PT

In the midst of the civil unrest in Egypt and throughout the Middle East, U.S. Senate-proposed legislation that has become known as the "Internet kill switch bill" was recently reintroduced.

The controversial bill, first introduced by Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn, in June 2010, seeks to empower the president and, in turn, the Department of Homeland Security to issue decrees that pertain to certain privately owned computer systems should the president declare a "national cyberemergency."

Amid criticism from the likes of the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Sen. Collins has stated that the proposed bill is proactive in that "we cannot afford to wait for a cyber 9/11 before our government finally realizes the importance of protecting our digital resources."

Moreover, in addressing the concerns directed to the expansive nature of the bill, the senator has stated that "the emergency measures in our bill apply in a precise and targeted way only to our most critical infrastructure."

In contrast to the control exerted most recently in Egypt, proponents of are of the view that the proposed bill provides for protections against cyberattacks and that it would not be implemented to control freedom of speech nor the organization of peaceful assemblies.

Addressing Civil Disobedience by Turning Off the Internet

The reintroduction of the proposed bill comes at a time when the Egyptian uprising, and Egypt's deactivation of the Internet in an effort to silence mounting dissent, has dominated the news.

By unplugging itself entirely from the Internet, Egypt did what was once thought unthinkable for any country with a major Internet economy. What occurred in Egypt has shown that a country with strong control over its Internet Service Providers (ISPs) can force all of them to simultaneously "switch off" the Internet.

The notion of quelling dissent by limiting people's access to communications -- including the Internet -- is not new. Various countries have attempted to restrict Internet access and cellphone use by their citizens. This tactic was used by the governments of both Myanmar and Iran.

In 2007, the Myanmar government shut down the Internet during anti-government protests. However, unlike Egypt, Myanmar was not as pervasively connected to the Internet.

In 2009, widespread demonstrations occurred following the presidential elections in Iran. The protests were organized in part through social media websites such as Facebook and Twitter. As a result, the Iranian government filtered and censored the Internet. However, it still allowed the Internet to function.

For years, China has restricted the content that can be viewed by its citizens over the Internet.

Still, it should be noted that until the Internet went dark in Egypt, a shutdown had never been implemented on such a large scale and in such synchronicity. Egypt demonstrated that it could be done.

Can the US Government Kill the Internet?

So, could the complete shutdown of the Internet occur in the United States? Even with the looming passage of the controversial "kill switch bill," it is unlikely that what occurred in Egypt could happen in the United States.

The U.S. has numerous ISPs and numerous ways of connecting to the Internet. While Egypt has dozens of ISPs, there are only five large carriers for Internet connectivity. It would be extremely difficult for the U.S. to coordinate a comparable, simultaneous shutdown.

This fact was emphasized by Sen. Lieberman, who has categorically stated that there is no "kill switch" in this bill, and that "it is impossible to turn off the Internet in this country."

Instead, the proposed legislation would see government control asserted over "the most critical infrastructures that Americans rely on in their daily lives -- energy transmission, water supply, financial services, for example -- to ensure that those assets are protected in case of a potentially crippling cyberattack," he said.

Despite these assurances, civil liberties groups and other critics are concerned that the president would still be given tremendous authority to interfere with Internet communications. As such, the issue for critics is not whether there is an Internet "kill switch."

Instead, the question that should be asked is whether the government can interfere with communications; and if so, whether there are significant protections, such as the ability to obtain a judicial review, to ensure the government does not overstep its boundaries.

The government recognizes that "a total Internet kill switch is totally unacceptable," said Jim Harper, member of a DHS advisory panel. "A smaller Internet kill switch, or a series of kill switches, is also unacceptable... . How does this make cybersecurity better? They have no answer."

Though critics from industry groups or technology companies may have views that differ in their particulars, they are united in that the proposed bill "is in need of additional refinement" before it should be unleashed on the American public.


C. Donald Brown is an intellectual property lawyer at Heydary Hamilton. Brown's practice includes patents, trademarks, copyrights and industrial designs, as well as IT matters.


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