The Egyptian government’s recent cutting of all Internet traffic in and out of the country in response to ongoing protests calling for the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak has garnered a great deal of international attention and condemnation. One result has been a renewed debate in the United States about the possibility of creating a so-called Internet “kill switch.”
The kill switch is associated with S.3480, The Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset Act [PDF], which is co-sponsored by Senator Joseph Lieberman (I-CT), Senator Susan Collins (R-ME), and Senator Tom Carper (D-DE). The bill, which was first introduced in June 2010, has come under fire for supposedly giving the President the ability to do what Egypt did last week–i.e. cut off the nation’s connection to the rest of the Internet during a time of crisis. But does it really? It’s hard to say. And therein lies the problem.
In a statement released this week, Senators Lieberman, Collins, and Carper explain
The steps the Mubarak government took last week to shut down Internet communications in Egypt were, and are, totally wrong. His actions were clearly designed to limit internal criticisms of his government. Our cybersecurity legislation is intended to protect the U.S. from external cyber attacks. Yet, some have suggested that our legislation would empower the President to deny U.S. citizens access to the Internet. Nothing could be further from the truth.
We would never sign on to legislation that authorized the President, or anyone else, to shut down the Internet. Emergency or no, the exercise of such broad authority would be an affront to our Constitution.
The remainder of their press release provides more detail about how their proposed legislation, in its current form, would not allow the President to do what Mubarak did in Egypt. They end by saying that they “will ensure that any legislation that moves in this Congress contains explicit language prohibiting the President from doing what President Mubarak did.”
On the surface, this all sounds very reassuring. But when confronted with similar concerns about the granting of “kill switch” authority to the President in S.3480, Senator Lieberman’s description of the powers that his legislation would grant the President sounds very much like what we have witnessed in Egypt. In an interview with Senator Lieberman on June 20, 2010, CNN’s Candy Crowley said,
First of all, you have an Internet bill, it has been called the “kill switch bill” that would allow the president to seize control or shut down portions of the Internet if the U.S. was under some sort of cyber attack. […] [T]here are a lot of people out there who think that what you are granting the president is absolute power to shut down freedom of speech.
Senator Lieberman responded by saying, “No way, and total misinformation.” But then he went on to clarify, saying
We need the capacity for the president to say, Internet service provider, we’ve got to disconnect the American Internet from all traffic coming in from another foreign country… Right now, China, the government, can disconnect parts of its Internet in a case of war. We need to have that here, too.
Disconnecting the American Internet sounds very much like what we have just seen in Egypt. Senator Lieberman’s comments could be read as indicating that he is not talking about a total shutdown of the Internet, only the blocking of traffic from select foreign countries. But it is not entirely clear.
Invoking China, a government known to engage in filtering and censoring of the Internet on a massive scale, to justify his argument has only added to the controversy. Only months earlier, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton had criticized China for its restrictions on Internet freedom.
This week’s response by Senators Lieberman, Collins, and Carper only seems to add to the confusion over what powers over the Internet they intend for their bill to give the President.
Finally, the Bureau of Reclamation has recently fired back, claiming that one of the main cyber-doom scenarios being used by promoters of S.3480–i.e. that hackers could open the floodgates on the Hoover Dam, killing thousands–is impossible.
So is there an “Internet kill switch” buried in the Lieberman, Collins, Carper cybersecurity bill? It is still not entirely clear. The seeming contradictions in the statements made by the sponsors of the bill can cause one to question the veracity of those statements, whether the sponsors themselves really understand what powers their bill would grant the President, or both. Add in the fact that Senator Lieberman has identified China as a model for U.S. cybersecurity policy on top of using dubious cyber-doom scenarios to encourage support for their bill, and one wonders if Senators Lieberman, Collins, and Carper can be relied upon to deliver meaningful cybersecurity legislation that balances protection of critical infrastructures and the protection of Americans’ own Internet freedoms.