Obama's Internet Kill Switch: Good Idea or Step Too Far?

Proposed legislation includes a system-wide control-alt-delete

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Senators Lieberman, Collins, and Carper have proposed cybersecurity legislation that would require Internet service providers and search engines to develop a "kill switch" to shut down entire swathes of the Web, or even the whole Internet, at the president's order. Is this systemic control-alt-delete a smart security measure or a potential freedom of information overreach?

  • Badly Needed  The Volokh Conspiracy's Stewart Baker calls criticism of the measure "malarkey," praising the idea. "It’s needed, badly, because the President today has less authority over the vulnerable electronic underbelly of our banks and power grid than he has over deepwater oil drilling. Of course the 'kill switch' crowd don’t see the need for any such authority. After all, why would we expect private companies ever to screw up in a way that would hurt the rest of us?" Baker earlier wrote:
If another country launches a computer network attack on US infrastructure, do we want the President to look as helpless as he looks today in response to the BP spill?  Remember, he won’t be looking helplessly at a few tarballs on the beach; in a worst-case emergency, he might be looking helplessly at a country that lacks power, working phones, and maybe even a reliable financial system.
  • Too Much Government Power  The Huffington Post's Bianca Bosker writes, "It would also see the creation of a new agency within the Department of Homeland Security, the National Center for Cybersecurity and Communications (NCCC). Any private company reliant on 'the Internet, the telephone system, or any other component of the U.S. information infrastructure' would be 'subject to command' by the NCCC, and some would be required to engage in 'information sharing' with the agency, says CBS4. Numerous groups, such as TechAmerica, have criticized the bill, warning of the 'potential for absolute power' and expressing reservations about the 'unintended consequences that would result from the legislation's regulatory approach.'"
  • Would Grant Gov't Authority Over Anything Internet-Related  CNet's Declan McCullogh explains, "Under PCNAA, the federal government's power to force private companies to comply with emergency decrees would become unusually broad. Any company on a list created by Homeland Security that also 'relies on' the Internet, the telephone system, or any other component of the U.S. 'information infrastructure' would be subject to command by a new National Center for Cybersecurity and Communications (NCCC) that would be created inside Homeland Security. "
  • 'What Could Go Wrong?'  Conservative blogger Glenn "Instapundit" Reynolds asks, "What could go wrong?" He adds, "If they shut down the Internet, I’m getting out my gun. And I think everyone should take it as a signal to do the same — because one way or the other, it means the country’s under attack."
  • Tech Industry Pushes Back  The Week reports, "For the most part, internet companies don't like it. Technology lobby group TechAmerica says legislation could have 'unintended consequences' and potentially give the White House 'absolute power' over the internet. The Center for Democracy and Technology says it could let the government shut down even private computer networks. To help persuade the industry to embrace the bill, Lieberman has included a provision that would prevent customer lawsuits against companies affected during an 'incident related to a cyber vulnerability,' after the president declares a state of emergency."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.