Don't Get Alarmed About the 'Internet Kill Switch'

On - Off Switch
On - Off Switch

U.S. lawmakers have advanced a cyber-security bill designed to define the president's power over the nation's critical Internet infrastructure in the event of a massive cyber-attack or national-security emergency.

Sponsored by Sen. Joe Lieberman, the independent Democrat from Connecticut, the Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset Act would create an Office of Cyberspace Policy and a National Center for Cybersecurity and Communications designed to increase public/private efforts to combat cyber-attacks.

But what's gotten most of the attention is the supposed "Internet kill switch" that would purportedly allow the president to shut down access to the Web if he wants to. This alarmist, sensationalist characterization was initially promulgated by CNET and then parroted around the Web.

Cooler heads at Talking Point Memo (TPM) soon pointed out that the president has had emergency war powers over national communications since the Communications Act of 1934, and that the Lieberman bill would actually impose limits on the president's power.

What the Bill Actually Says

According to the bill's text, "The President may issue a declaration of a national cyber emergency to covered critical infrastructure." In the event of such a declaration, the director of Cyberspace Policy then has the authority to "immediately direct the owners and operators of covered critical infrastructure. . .to implement response plans."

The director may also "develop and coordinate emergency measures or actions necessary to preserve the reliable operation, and mitigate or remediate the consequences of the potential disruption, of covered critical infrastructure."

The director must "ensure that emergency measures or actions directed under this section represent the least disruptive means feasible to the operations of the covered critical infrastructure." According to the bill, such presidential declarations may only last 30 days, with a 30 day extension.

"Under current law," TPM notes, "[the president] is allowed to shut down any and all telecommunications infrastructure for as long as he likes."

Does that mean Americans shouldn't be concerned about government power over the Internet -- particularly in the area of surveillance? Of course not. But fear-mongering over a mysterious "Internet kill switch" is not productive.