The Obama Internet Kill Switch – powers to cut internet access in the event of national cyber crisis

While the Egyptian government has drawn international criticism for shutting down internet and mobile phone access during civil unrest, it might alarm many Americans to learn that Barack Obama may soon have the same powers.

Lawmakers are set to debate a controversial new plan to give the President the power to shut down the Internet in case of a cyber emergency.

The proposal is certain to meet opposition, but Senator Susan Collins, the co-sponsor of the bill, insisted today that the legislation would not be used for censorship.

'Turn it off!': Under proposed new laws, President Barack Obama would have the power to cut access to the internet in the event of a cyber threat to national security

She said it would ‘provide a mechanism for the government to work with the private sector in the event of a true cyber emergency.

‘It would give our nation the best tools available to swiftly respond to a significant threat.’

Former vice presidential candidate Joe Lieberman, chairman of the U.S. Homeland Security Committee, said safeguards were needed to ‘preserve those networks and assets and our country and protect our people’.

He claimed national security was at risk from new foes such as ‘cyber warriors, cyber spies, cyber terrorists and cyber criminals’.

He said: ‘For all its allure, the Internet can be a dangerous place with electronic pipelines that run directly into everything from our personal bank accounts to key infrastructure to government and industrial secrets.’

Presidential powers: Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Joseph Lieberman and Senator Susan Collins. Both are in favour of a 'kill switch' bill


The issue has been brought into sharp focus by moves by the Egyptian authorities in recent days to disrupt activists by preventing them from using the Internet or their phones to arrange rallies.

Egypt’s four main Internet service providers reportedly cut off international access for their customers at the same time last Thursday.

Officials said the shutdown is the most comprehensive official electronic blackout in history.

Mr Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have both called on the Egyptian government to restore the Internet and social networking sites.

The plan to give the president the right to flip the kill switch of the Internet has already attracted opposition from abroad.

‘For all its allure, the Internet can be a dangerous place with electronic pipelines that run directly into everything from our personal bank accounts to key infrastructure to government and industrial secrets’

Bjorn Landfeldt, an associate professor at the University of Sydney, Australia, said taking the Internet offline would ‘inflict an enormous damage on the world’.

He added that it would be tantamount to giving a country ‘the right to poison the atmosphere, or poison the ocean’.

But officials said there was no intention to paralyse the Internet.

Republican Brandon Milhorn said: ‘We’re not trying to mandate any requirement for the entire Internet backbone.’

He said the proposal would only assert governmental control over those ‘crucial components that form our nation’s critical infrastructure’.

One contentious provision of the bill is that it would prevent private companies from contesting the shutdown in court.

Steve DelBianco, director of the NetChoice coalition – which includes eBay, Oracle, Verisign and Yahoo as members – said: ‘Judicial review is our main concern. A designation of critical information infrastructure brings with it huge obligations for upgrades and compliance.’

In some cases, said Mr DelBianco, a company might have a ‘good-faith disagreement’ with the government’s ruling and would want to seek court review.

He said: ‘The country we’re seeking to protect is a country that respects the right of any individual to have their day in court. Yet this bill would deny that day in court to the owner of infrastructure.’

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  1. February 1st, 2011
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