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Should the president have an Internet kill switch?

Several U.S. Senators plan to introduce a bill that would give the president the power to restrict Internet traffic in the event of a cyber security emergency.




Today's Question: Should the president have an "Internet kill switch" to limit damage to U.S. infrastructure in case of a cyber attack?

The Wall Street Journal is reporting that Nasdaq computers have been under attack. What if attackers were able to damage the U.S. financial system in a widespread attack?

Last week, Wired reported that senators were planning to reintroduce legislation that would give the federal government some power to limit Internet traffic in the event of a cyber-security emergency.

In the last session of Congress, senators proposed a national center for cyber security run by an executive with the authority to order private companies to shut down critical infrastructure, including the Web.

This session, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), along with several co-sponsors, introduced the "Cyber Security and American Cyber Competitiveness Act of 2011." Many see it as placeholder bill for a redrafted version of last year's proposal.

That move drew a lot of attention when the world watched the Egyptian government shut down all Internet access as protesters took to the streets. Sens. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.), Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Tom Carper (D-Del.) issued a statement on Tuesday decrying the Egypt's actions and clarifying that they believe the bill would not grant the president the same power to interfere with free Web access.

Still, the bill as proposed has experts concerned.

Greg Nojeim, director of the Center for Democracy and Technology's Project on Freedom, Security and Technology, said the bill is focused on cyber security emergency measures, not on squelching dissent. But he said the measure is not sufficient to ensure that such power to control Internet access is not abused.

"What if the authority the bill gives the government to shut down or limit Internet traffic was abused?" Nojeim said. "What would be the remedy? The bill does not allow for a remedy. There's no authority for an objective decision-maker to ensure the decision ... is properly based on a true emergency."

Nojeim is concerned that the bill's only limit is that the period of authorized emergency is 30 days -- a time frame that can be extended to 120 days. After that, Congress would have to approve a continued emergency. By the time the first real limitation on these powers kicked in, Nojeim said, four months would have gone by.

"There ought to be a way to deal with a shutdown order that should not have been issued in the first place," he said.

Tim Karr, campaign director for the media reform nonprofit Free Press, agreed that the legislation lacks specificity and has weak checks on executive power. Not only does the bill not define what constitutes and emergency, he said, "there's no sufficient appeal process for operators."

"The government is looking broadly at the new reality of anti-government hackers, they're looking at WikiLeaks," Karr said. "They're also granting broad authority to act against an as yet undefined threat." Because the bill empowers the executive to do whatever is necessary, Karr said, If the director decides to block or limit Internet traffic, there's no clear route for an appeal.

"This essentially gives unchecked authority to the executive branch to shut down an engine for free speech, he said. "There are First Amendment issues that are not sufficiently addressed" in the legislation.

Karr said that Free Press is pressing Lieberman and Collins to make changes to the bill before reintroducing it. The group would like to see something that explicitly prevents the executive branch from turning off infrastructure.

Nojeim said that CDT opposes any shutdown authorization.

"Owners and operators of critical infrastructure know their systems the best, and know better than the government when they need to be shut down," he said, adding that giving the government shutdown authority would create perverse incentives. Instead of immediately shutting down a system in an emergency, an operator might wait until a shutdown order was issued to limit the operator's liability for any problems the block causes.

Karr said he was glad to hear White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs's comments last week that shutting off access to the internet and to social networking violated the rights of the Egyptian people.

"We hope that Gibbs's statement is reflected in the policy," he said. "Free Press fundamentally believes, as does Press Secretary Gibbs, that access to the Internet and social networking is a fundamental right. No power should be able to take that away."



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Tags: congress, internet/net neutrality/piracy
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