Cybersecurity senators say they wouldn't give U.S. president authority to kill Internet

The Egyptian government’s decision to pull the plug on nationwide Internet access in an attempt to impede what some have described as “the Internet revolution” prompted a group of key senators to defend their effort to give the president of the United States authority to shut down Internet traffic in an emergency.

Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman, ID-CT; ranking member Susan Collins, R-ME; and Sen. Tom Carper, D-DE; jointly issued a statement Feb. 1 defending what critics have described as their proposal for an Internet kill switch. Similar legislation introduced last summer did not progress through the last Congress before it expired.

“The steps the Mubarak government took last week to shut down Internet communications in Egypt were, and are, totally wrong,” the statement said. “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," the statement continued. "Emergency or no, the exercise of such broad authority would be an affront to our Constitution.”

In the view of the senators, current laws give the president “broad and ambiguous” authorities in the event of a cyber attack that are “a recipe for encroachments on privacy and civil liberties.”

According to the senators, the legislation proscribes emergency measures to be applied “in a precise and targeted way only to our most critical infrastructure,” such as networks and assets that are essential to make the economy and society function.

But Gregory Nojeim, director of the Project on Freedom, Security and Technology for the Center for Democracy and Technology, sees things differently.

“We don’t believe that the case has been made for giving the government any shutdown authority with respect to Internet traffic,” he said.

Owners and operators of critical Internet infrastructure already shut down and isolate their systems when they need to and know better than government officials when there is a threat requiring such action, he said.

Additionally, there would be “huge unintended consequences” to the economy and the Internet if the government were granted such power. Not only would a shutdown interfere with the flow of billions of dollars, but it might also interfere with emergency communications via IP by first responders, he said.

“(Authority to shut down portions of the Internet) would create some perverse incentives,” he added. “Private operators called on to share more information with the government will hesitate to do that if the government could use that to shut it down. Also, if they make the determination that they ought to shut down, the operators might wait longer than they should to escape liability for downstream effects when they comply with that order.”

Phil Kurz is a contributing editor to TV Tech. He has written about TV and video technology for more than 30 years and served as editor of three leading industry magazines. He earned a Bachelor of Journalism and a Master’s Degree in Journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Journalism.