There's nothing like a whole-country Internet disconnect to focus attention on how a so-called "kill switch" would work.
While proposals to give President Obama emergency authority to disconnect privately owned computers from the Internet have circulating on Capitol Hill for a few years, last week's news about Egypt pulling the plug on its Net-connection focused new attention on the topic. (On January 24, CNET was the first to report that the legislation will return this year.)
Legendary technology columnist John C. Dvorak warned that such a proposal "gives the president the power to literally kill the Internet." Investor's Business Daily noted the emergency procedures would be overseen by the Department of Homeland Security, "the same people who think enhanced pat-downs and groping our junk are necessary evils." Canada's National Post concluded, with mild understatement, the timing was "awkward."
Make that "awful." Less than 24 hours after Senate Democrats sent out a press release on Wednesday outlining their rather vague plans for future legislation to "safeguard" the Internet, Egypt went offline.
By the following afternoon, almost all Egyptian Internet providers ceased to publish information about electronic routes to their networks, making them unreachable worldwide. Yesterday, the one apparently unaffected network, the Noor Group, followed suit and vanished around 12:46 p.m. PT. Noor's client list included ExxonMobil, Toyota, Hyatt, Coca-Cola, the American University in Cairo, and the Egyptian stock exchange.
The experience of a country of more than 60 million people nearly deleted from the Internet--especially when the revolt is followed so closely on Twitter and Facebook--has made U.S. legislation a more difficult sell. One wag has even called the idea a "kill switch for capitalism."
"It's difficult for the US to criticize an autocrat like Hosni Mubarak for shutting down the Internet if we give our own president similarly sweeping powers," says Berin Szoka of the TechFreedom think tank in Washington, D.C. "Even if that never, ever happens here, our having such laws on the books certainly makes it more likely other governments will gain, and abuse, such powers."
A draft Senate proposal that CNET obtained in August 2009 authorized the White House to "declare a cybersecurity emergency," and another from Sens. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.V.) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) would have explicitly given the government the power to "order the disconnection" of certain networks or Web sites. House Democrats have taken a similar approach.
In December, a Senate committee approved a bill introduced last summer and scheduled to be re-introduced soon, by senators Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine), which would hand President Obama power over privately-owned computer systems during a "national cyber emergency." The latest public version includes controversial new language saying that the federal government's designation of vital Internet or other computer systems "shall not be subject to judicial review." (The term "kill switch" does not appear in the legislation.)
Their so-called Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset Act works this way: Homeland Security will "establish and maintain a list of systems or assets that constitute covered critical infrastructure" and that will be subject to emergency decrees. President Obama would then have the power to "issue a declaration of a national cyber emergency."
A statement from Lieberman and Collins last year argues that their bill would not give the White House a "kill switch." Instead, they say, it would provide "a precise, targeted, and focused way for the president to defend our most sensitive infrastructure."
It's not clear what format the Democrats' forthcoming legislation will take or whether it would be swept into one package or voted on separately. Last week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, along with the chairmen of seven committees pledged to act swiftly, because a cybersecurity emergency could have a "devastating impact" on the economy.
Mubarak couldn't have put it any better.