Can Obama Turn Off the Internet?

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Last week, a Senate committee approved the Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset Act of 2010, which promptly caused many members of the blogosphere to lose their minds. See, the act has been heralded as the “Internet Kill Switch Bill” and, as such, it’s purported to give our president the power to shut down all of cyberspace (in case of an emergency, of course).

The particular provision in question allows the president "to authorize emergency measures to protect the nation's most critical infrastructure if a cyber vulnerability is being exploited or is about to be exploited." Essentially, this means that the president could order a specific Internet company or ask a particular website to shut down if sufficient evidence of a cyber-threat were to surface.

“[The nation’s] electric grid, the telecommunications  grid, transportation, all the rest is constantly being probed by nation states, by some terrorist groups, by organized criminal gangs," Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) explained in an interview on CNN. "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, or we've got to put a patch on this part of it."

Sounds serious (or vague) enough. However, according to Lieberman and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Me.), the bill’s sponsors, the new act doesn’t create an Internet kill switch … because, technically, one already exists.

Under the Communications Act of 1934, which was amended in 1996, the president can shut down any or all wireless communications available and control or close down “any or all facilities or stations for wire communication within the jurisdiction of the United States” during a period ending “not later than six months after the termination of such state or threat of war and not later than such earlier date as the Congress by concurrent resolution may designate.”

Lieberman and Collins maintain that the new bill actually limits the authority that the president has under the Communications Act of 1934. After all, the bill stipulates that now the President can only declare cyber-emergencies for 30-day increments, which can only be stretched beyond 120 days with the permission of Congress.  

Additionally, the heart of the legislation calls for the creation of new cybersecurity organizations in the White House and the Department of Homeland Security, designed specifically to come up with non-disruptive methods of cyber-defense.

“This is a matter of national security,” Lieberman said. “A cyber attack on America can do as much or more damage today by incapitating our banks, our communications, our finance, our transportation as a conventional war attack. This is something that we need to protect our country.”

But naysayers argue that the bill’s vagueness could potentially violate our civil rights. Dozens of privacy and civil liberties groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the U.S. Bill of Rights Foundation and American Library Association, sent a letter to the Senate last week saying that “the bill does not adequately define covered critical infrastructure, giving rise to concern that it includes elements of the Internet that Americans rely on every day to engage in free speech and to access information.”

Other groups believe that developing the nation’s cybersecurity could inadvertently invoke Big Brother.

“Good intentions aside, America’s technology companies are concerned about the unintended consequences that would result from the legislation’s regulatory approach,” Phil Bond, President of TechAmerica, one of the largest U.S. technology lobby groups, said in a press release. “We are continuing to evaluate the emergency powers in the bill to make sure they provide for coordination with industry at every step and to mitigate the potential for absolute power.”

Ironically, President Obama’s latest technological endeavors involved increasing the public’s access to wireless networks. He signed a memorandum today which will make 500 MHz of federal and commercial broadband capacity available to the public over the next 10 years.

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