'Kill Switch' Internet bill alarms privacy experts
By Jon Swartz, USA TODAYFeb 15, 2011
SAN FRANCISCO — A raging debate over new legislation, and its impact on the Internet, has tongues wagging and fingers pointing from Silicon Valley to Washington, D.C.
Just as the Egyptian government recently forced the Internet to go dark, U.S. officials could flip the switch if the Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset legislation becomes law, say its critics.
Proponents of the bill, which is expected to be reintroduced in the current session of Congress, dismiss the detractors as ill-informed — even naive.
The ominously nicknamed Kill Switch bill is sure to be a flashpoint of discussion at the RSA Conference, the nation's largest gathering of computer-security experts that takes place here this week.
The bill — crafted by Sens. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn.; Susan Collins, R-Maine; and Tom Carper, D-Del. — aims to defend the economic infrastructure from a cyberterrorist attack. But it has free-speech advocates and privacy experts howling over the prospect of a government agency quelling the communication of hundreds of millions of people.
"This is all about control, an attempt to control every aspect of our existence," says Christopher Feudo, a cybersecurity expert who is chairman of SecurityFusion Solutions. "I consider it an attack on our personal right of free speech. Look what recently occurred in Egypt."
Its critics immediately dubbed it Kill Switch, suffusing it with Big Brother-tinged foreboding. "Unfortunately, it got this label, which is analogous to death panels (during the health care debates)," says Mark Kagan, director of research at Keane Federal Systems, an information-technology contractor for the government.
The disruption to communications and economic activity "could be catastrophic," says Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.
Opposition and execution
Cyberthreats aside, deep questions persist over what critics claim is the bill's heavy-handed approach, what it means to free speech and whether it can be enforced practically.
The crux of the issue, to computer-law expert Fertik and others, is if the Internet is a national asset, should it be nationalized?
"Determining where the Internet connects to infrastructure is hard to define and impose," Kagan says.
"In its current form, the legislation offers no clear means to check that power," says Timothy Karr, campaign director for media-policy group Free Press, a non-profit organization.
A 1934 federal law that created the Federal Communications Commission allows the president to "authorize the use or control" of communications outlets during moments of emergency of "public peril or disaster." The Lieberman-led bill would be considered a specific extension of that and let the nation's chief executive prioritize communications on the Internet, says Fertik.
A provision in the bill lets the president take limited control during an emergency and decide restrictions. "It, essentially, gives the president a loaded gun," Fertik says.
"Say there is a mounted attack from a terrorist group on the Internet," Fertik says. "(The law) could present the president with a kill switch option. But what are the conditions, and how far does (the law) go?"
The debate extends to minutiae in the bill's wording.
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