Wednesday, February 2, 2011

What If The President Could Turn The Internet OFF?

If you are like many (most?) Americans, you have been listening to news of the crisis in Egypt with one ear. It seems the more global we become, the less we pay attention to what is happening outside of the U.S. But when we heard Egypt had essentially shut down the Internet nationwide, many of us started paying attention. Shut down the Internet? Is that even possible? In a word, yes. Now, two U.S. Senators, Joe Lieberman (Ind.-CT) and Susan Collins, (R-ME) have put forth a piece of legislation that would effectively grant the President of the U.S. the right to shut down major parts of the Internet in a time of national emergency. The bill is called the Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset Act of 2010. First introduced last June, it gained notoriety this week, just as Egypt shut down the Internet.

Bad timing? Uh, yeah.

Although we Americans are unlikely to go wild in the streets Egyptian style, you can expect a lot of barking back and forth about this bill. Media types, like me, will cry “First Amendment.” Others will cry “too much big government/big daddy.” Others will defend the bill as a necessary move to protect our national interests. The latter will spout off things like, “What’s more important – being able to read or safeguarding our national security?”

It’s that last group that seems wildly shortsighted to me. First, somebody needs to inform them that about $8 billion in electronic commerce happens every single day. And most of it has nothing to do with regular citizens buying a new blender from It has to do with the supply chain for major industry, internationally. Automobile manufacturers, for example, do most of their procuring and ordering of parts via the Internet. As for media, most news organizations have gone or are almost fully digital now. Even two or three years ago many companies were stubbornly hanging on to traditional formats, such as daily newspapers. But today that is not the case. Did you know that 166 newspapers have gone out of print since 2008, including big names like the Rocky Mountain Daily News and Seattle Post-Intelligencer? The Internet has enabled the 24/7 news cycle to evolve, and Americans need it.

So, how are the two Senators (below, right) justifying introducing what is becoming known as the “kill switch” bill? Here’s what Lieberman told CNN: "We need this capacity in a time of war. 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. The president will never take over -- the government should never take over the Internet."

Note to Senator Lieberman: First, you have not really outlined why we need this capacity in times of war. Supporters say a foreign entity could use broadband power to disable the grid that controls electrical power. I suppose it would help if we could hear about this from someone other than a Senator – someone who has expertise in this area.

"A cyber attack on America can do as much or more damage today by incapacitating our banks, our communications, our finance, our transportation, as a conventional war attack," Lieberman claims. Again, as a citizen, I need more information than a simple proclamation by a soon-to-be-retired Senator. For example, do our financial institutions not have safeguards in place that protect them – and us – against cyber attacks? If not, are there safeguards that could be put in place that would make an Internet shutdown unnecessary?

If you read the bill, and I hope you really will, here are a few things to keep in mind. The wording is vague. You will come away from the bill having read that the President would not shut down the entire Internet, but only those parts that would compromise “critical infrastructure.” But what is critical infrastructure, who will decide and how? You will also notice there is no limit to how long the Internet can be shut down. So, if the President cuts it off for 10 or 12 days, the U.S. economy is in the hole at least $100 billion. Can we really allow that? How many small businesses that rely exclusively on the Internet (such as parts suppliers to auto manufacturers) would go under in those couple of weeks? Further, no one seems to want to talk about how the stock exchange would continue to operate in the global marketplace if there is no chance of digital communication or trading.

And what about freedom of the press? The first amendment clearly states that Congress cannot enact legislation that abridges free speech or freedom of the press. In 2011, I cannot think of anything that would cancel out freedom of the press more than shutting down the Internet. How will Congress address that when debating this bill? That debate, by the way, is coming up fast. Congress is tentatively scheduled to vote on this in the summer.

The average age in the current House of Representatives is 62, and in the Senate it is 53.No offense intended and no ageist sensibilities on my part, but is this really the group of people you want to make decisions on advanced technology issues? Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) is 87. Richard Luger (R-IN) is turning 80. Both Senators from Hawaii are 86. Hello? How many of these people don’t even read or write their own email, much less understand the broad implications of canceling out digital communication? Congress is aging, and it is no secret that older Americans are not among the most tech-savvy citizens.

Finally, regardless of your political leanings, do you really want one human being (the President) to have the power to decide if vital parts of the Internet should be blacked out? What if he or she has their own political agenda for doing so? What if his or her judgment is clouded by over-reactive statements from their military chiefs? Also, it would seem from reading the bill that there is no provision for judicial oversight. That means the Executive Branch has carte blanche here. What about the time-tested method of governmental checks and balances?

Too many unanswered questions, and too much potential unprecedented Presidential power, if you ask me. Okay, so nobody asked me, but I am definitely emailing my elected officials about this, and so should you. Meanwhile, you’ll have to excuse me…I have to get back to

1 comment:

seoinheritx said...

Yes, Its not good for the IT sectors.

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