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The Internet 'Kill Switch' Bill: What It Is, and Why It Won't Die

kill switchOn the very day that the Egyptian government shut down an overwhelming majority of the country's Internet servers, Republican Senator Susan Collins began floating a piece of legislation which, if passed, would grant the President the power to do essentially the same thing in the U.S.

The so-called 'kill switch' bill was approved by the Senate's Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee back in December, but expired once the new Congress assumed power a few weeks later. Collins, who serves as the Republican ranking member of the Committee, says the legislation wouldn't allow the President to actually "kill" the Internet, but would simply give him the ability to shut down "critical infrastructure" in the event of a serious cyberattack on the country.

"My legislation would provide a mechanism for the government to work with the private sector in the event of a true cyber emergency," Collins wrote in an e-mail to Wired. "It would give our nation the best tools available to swiftly respond to a significant threat." An aide to the Senate Committee provided Wired with the following example: if the U.S. detected a serious cyberthreat, Collins' legislation would enable the President to instantly shut down any infrastructure connected to "the system that controls the floodgates to the Hoover dam"

Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman, who co-sponsored the bill, hailed the kill switch as a necessary defense against "cyber warriors, cyber spies, cyber terrorists and cyber criminals." "For all its allure," Lieberman continued, "the Internet can be a dangerous place with electronic pipelines that run directly into everything from our personal bank accounts to key infrastructure to government and industrial secrets."

Not everyone, however, is so enthusiastic about the idea. Last year, the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Library Association, Electronic Frontier Foundation and Center for Democracy & Technology and several other groups wrote an open letter to Congress, expressing their collective concerns about the proposed legislation. If passed, they argue, the measure could easily allow the government to censor the Web. "It is imperative that cyber-security legislation not erode our rights," they wrote in the letter (PDF).

A congressional white paper (PDF) countered that the legislation clearly prohibits the government from censoring websites "based solely on activities protected by the First Amendment." But it's not just free speech advocates who are concerned. "This has implications not just for free speech," Business Insider's Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry writes, "but also for free markets, as zillions of businesses (including this one!) depend on the internet directly or indirectly." Steve DelBianco echoed Gobry's market-related concerns, pointing out that the legislation expressly prohibits targeted websites from contesting the shutdown in court.

"Judicial review is our main concern," said DelBianco, director of the NetChoice coalition, which includes eBay, Oracle and Yahoo!. "A designation of critical information infrastructure brings with it huge obligations for upgrades and compliance." Speaking to the Daily Mail, DelBianco added that any company should be able to settle a "good-faith disagreement" with the government in court, and that no law should deny businesses that right. "The country we're seeking to protect is a country that respects the right of any individual to have their day in court," he continued. "Yet this bill would deny that day in court to the owner of infrastructure."

PC Magazine's John C. Dvorak thinks the entire premise of the bill is misguided, and founded upon what he calls a "weird tautology." "The country can't function without the Net, so we need to secure [it], which includes having the ability to shut it down," he explains. "But with the Net down, how can the country function? You tell me."

The timing of the bill's resurgence is also curious, as the Obama administration continues to urge Egypt to open up the Web and online social networks. National Post's Matt Gurney acknowledges that Congress isn't "wrong" to take strong measures against cyberattacks, but argues that "the irony of the U.S. debating how to kill the Internet while we all rely on the very same technology to keep us up to date about how other people are using social media to change the world is inescapable, and groan-inducing."

Then, of course, there's always the concern that the 'kill switch' could just make it easier for the U.S. government to do exactly what Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak did. Pragmatic as the measure may be in combating cyber-terrorists, Dvorak argues that Collins' bill speaks to a reactionary mentality from another era. "There's a banana republic mentality at work here with this Internet kill switch nonsense," Dvorak writes. "Nobody is taking it over to deliver a victory message any time soon. But the idea is clear. Control the Internet, and you control the masses."

Tags: congress, constitution, court, CyberAttack, egypt, free speech, FreeSpeech, Hosni Mubarak, HosniMubarak, Internet, Joe Lieberman, JoeLieberman, kill switch, KillSwitch, law, obama, politics, security, terrorism, top, Web