Egypt's Internet blackout reignites kill switch debate

Lieberman, co-sponsors defend proposed cybersecurity legislation

Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn) and his co-sponsors plan to reintroduce a comprehensive cybersecurity bill during this Congress, but recent events in Egypt have reignited controversy over the potential for what has been called a presidential Internet “kill switch” in the legislation.

The Mubarak government last week shut down most of Egypt’s Internet and wireless telecom infrastructure in response to massive antigovernment protests. Some critics of the Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset Act have pointed to this as a warning of what could happen if the president were to be given the authority to shut down or disconnect from the Internet some critical infrastructures in the event of a cyberattack or emergency.

In a statement issued Tuesday, senators Lieberman, who is chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, ranking member Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Tom Carper (D-Del.), condemned Egypt’s action as “totally wrong” and defended their own legislation.

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“Our cybersecurity legislation is intended to protect the U.S. from external cyberattacks,” the statement says. “Yet, some have suggested that our legislation would empower the president to deny U.S. citizens access to the Internet. Nothing could be further from the truth. We would never sign on to legislation that authorized the president, or anyone else, to shut down the Internet. Emergency or no, the exercise of such broad authority would be an affront to our Constitution.”

Dr. Tarek Saadawi, an Egyptian-born professor of electrical engineering in the City College of New York’s Grove School of Engineering, who participated in modernizing the Egyptian network, cautioned against cybersecurity legislation.

“I object to this type of thing,” Saadawi said of the Egyptian shutdown, and he objected to the idea of U.S. government control of the Internet in the name of security. “I find it difficult to accept in principle.”

He said that regulation is more likely to stifle innovation than promote security and that security is best left to the technical experts. He added that a complete shutdown of the U.S. Internet infrastructure would be more difficult than in Egypt.

Saadawi took part in a five-year program funded by USAID to modernize the Egyptian telecommunications system, beginning in 2000. Although the system was small by U.S. standards, it had a modern fiber-optic core and Saadawi said Egypt was rapidly advancing in e-government.

“They had a good infrastructure and it was growing,” he said. “But it is not as complex as the U.S., so it is easier to control bigger portions of it because there are fewer gateways.”

The Protecting Cyberspace act was introduced in the 111th Congress, where it died when it was not acted on. Lieberman and his co-sponsors plan to reintroduce similar legislation in the current session of Congress. Last week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada introduced S.21, the Cyber Security and American Competitiveness Act of 2011, as a place-holder bill, “to indicate that he believes passing cybersecurity this Congress is among his top priorities,” said HSGA Committee Communications Director Leslie Phillips.

The current bill is a Sense of Congress resolution in favor of “bipartisan legislation to secure the United States against cyberattack, to enhance American competitiveness and create jobs ... and to protect the identities of American citizens and businesses.”

The resolution does not give specifics, but calls for improving the capacity of the government and private sector to respond to attacks on the private infrastructure and for increasing its resiliency.

The senators’ statement suggests that new cybersecurity legislation would contain provisions similar to those in their previous bill for disconnecting critical systems when threatened or under attack. These provisions are narrower and better crafted than what the senators called the “broad and ambiguous” powers under existing law.

“For example, in the event of a war or threat of war, the Communications Act of 1934 authorizes the president to take over or shut down wire and radio communications providers,” the statement says. “This law is a crude sledgehammer built for another time and technology. Our bill contains a number of protections to make sure that broad authority is not used.”

The bill targeted only critical infrastructure, defined emergency conditions for invoking the authority, and set limits on the length of time it could be used without congressional approval.

“The legislation expressly forbids any action that would violate the First Amendment and also prohibits limiting internet traffic, e-mails, and other forms of communication (except those between critical infrastructure providers) unless no other action would prevent a regional or national catastrophe,” the statement says.

Saadawi, in condemning the Egyptian shutdown, did not compare it with proposed U.S. regulation.

“It was an extreme case,” he said of the Egyptian government’s action. But he said it would be useful to consider that action as a worst case scenario when thinking about the possibility of putting additional security controls on the Internet.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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Reader Comments

Thu, Feb 10, 2011 John Southeast US

Some equally absurd US “kill switches”:
Water and Gas kill switch – Cut every pipe in the US.
Interstate Highway kill switch – Block every access ramp in the US.
A network is a collection of computers and the switches, routers and circuits that tie them together.
An internet (small i) is a network of networks and the Internet (big I) is the world wide collection of networks that are interconnected together. Parts of the Internet go up and down all the time. The way the Internet is designed and put together is like the street grid system in many cities. If you have a problem on one street you bypass it on another clear street. Information on the Internet flows through thousands of “electronic streets” around the US. There are a number of relevant cyber and network security issues that legislation needs to address but “Kill switches” is not one of them. Please media do not hype the absurd :)

Thu, Feb 10, 2011

Sort of reminds me of Seven Days of May

Tue, Feb 8, 2011

The Press should be the group most critical of the proposed legislation. You will soon obtain virtually all your news via Internet - TVs, streaming news via mobile devices, etc. A President from either party could choose to kill the Net, if a large and vocal group questioned the legitimacy of his/her rule. That would certainly be viewed as a threat to the nation, just as it was in Egypt. If oversight by Congress or the courts were truly effective, it is doubtful we would still be in two wars, or the current President would still not have produced a birth certificate.

Tue, Feb 8, 2011

" We would never sign on to legislation that authorized the president, or anyone else, to shut down the Internet" The problem is, what is INTENDED now, may not be what's INTERPRETED later - for example "congress shall make no law regarding the establishment of religion ... now means "separation of church and state"

Tue, Feb 8, 2011 Neo Fort Sill, OK

I believe this quote pretty much says it all concerning giving any government official, in any administration, the ability to squelch the 1st Amendment to the US Constitution (or any other amendment, for that matter): "If ye love wealth better than liberty, the tranquillity of servitude than the animating contest of freedom, — go from us in peace. We ask not your counsels or arms. Crouch down and lick the hands which feed you. May your chains sit lightly upon you, and may posterity forget that ye were our countrymen!" - Samuel Adams

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