Thursday, July 1, 2010

Don’t give the President an “Internet Kill Switch”

On June 10, 2010, Senator Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) and his cosponsors Senator Thomas Carper (D-DE) and Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) introduced the Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset Act. This bill, which would give the president power to restrict or shut down the Internet during emergencies, threatens civil liberties, including the right to free speech. The unprecedented bill is Congress’s most comprehensive piece of legislation concerning cybersecurity during a national crisis.

Greg Nojeim, the senior counsel and director of the Project on Freedom, Security, and Technology at the Center for Democracy and Technology, spearheaded a campaign to amend the bill. Because of his efforts, 23 organizations signed on to a letter calling for changes to the bill. The signatories concerns include the bill’s scope, the preservation of free speech, the extent of information sharing, privacy, and transparency. [1] The diverse signatories include the National Lawyers Guild, the Citizens’ Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, and Political Research Associates.

An amendment to the bill has since been proposed that addresses several of these concerns. It limits the extent to which the president can obstruct Internet usage and changes the original indefinite period of executive privilege to a maximum of 120 days before the president must seek congressional approval. [2]

The bill creates a National Center for Cybersecurity and Communications (NCCC) that would control access to any aspect of the Internet that it deemed “covered critical infrastructure” (CCI). Originally, it possessed the power to shut down all Internet access to civilians. However, the amendment narrows the definition of CCI to a “system or asset the destruction or disruption of which would cause national or regional catastrophic effects.” [3]

Despite the improvements to the bill, there is still reason for concern unless additional amendments are included. In a second letter, addressed to the cosponsors of the bill and the rest of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs, Nojeim applauded the senators for the modifications laid out in the amendment but urged them to go further. At a minimum, he said, Congress must explicitly delineate the power of the NCCC, especially regarding the extent to which it can “develop and coordinate emergency measures or actions necessary to preserve the reliable operation, and mitigate or remediate the consequences of potential disruption, of covered critical infrastructure.” [4]

This bill gives the president control over the lines of communication and potentially limits free speech during emergencies, just the times when peoples’ voices need to be heard. Like the word “terrorism,” “emergency” can be manipulated to justify measures that hamper social justice movements. In the name of national security, President Truman broke a steelworkers’ strike in 1952, during the Korean War. On a much smaller scale, during protests at the G-20 meetings in Pittsburg in 2009, police harassed and arrested Twitter users who were communicating with demonstrators – echoing Iran’s crackdown on the internet during popular protests in that same year. These incidents are a reminder of what’s at stake in the Cybersecurity Bill.

Political advocacy groups have an interest in keeping the Internet secure from malicious threats; however we must also be cautious about giving government too much power or control over public resources such as the Internet.

1. Nojeim, Gregory T., RE: Civil Liberties Issues in Cybersecurity Bill, see (accessed 1 July 2010). See also John Byrne, “Senators introduce bill that would allow US to disconnect the Internet,” The Raw Story (June 18, 2010), at (accessed July 1, 2010). For more on this issue, also see the Electronic Privacy Information Center at:
2. Open Congress, “Text of S. 3480 as Introduced in Senate: Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset Act of 2010,” (accessed 1 July 2010).
3. Nojeim, Gregory T., Regarding S. 3480, the Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset Act, see (accessed 1 July 2010).
4. Nojeim, Regarding S. 3480.