Shutting Down American Cyberspace

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While the revolts which have occurred in Tunisia and Egypt against historically oppressive regimes involve different issues, there is no question that the impetus for both was technologically driven.  Facebook and Twitter have been integral components in not only organizing and coordinating large-scale demonstrations, but also in providing critical, real-time updates to anti-government forces.  The Egyptian government has responded to this reality:  as of 5:20 AM Thursday morning, Egypt shut down nearly all Internet and mobile phone access.  As of Saturday, mobile phone access had been partially restored.  Question: could a similar blackout be imposed in the U.S. as the result of a “national emergency”?

Last June, a bill entitled “Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset Act of 2010″ (S. 3480) was introduced in the Senate by Chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Joseph Lieberman (I-CN), and Ranking Member, Susan Collins, (R-ME). Among other things, the bill would authorize the creation of a cyberspace policy office in the White House, as well as a cyber-security center run by the Department of Homeland Security.  Perhaps the most controversial provision in the legislation is the one which grants the president the power to “authorize emergency measures to protect the nation’s most critical infrastructure if a cyber vulnerability is being exploited, or about to be exploited.”

Perhaps sensing the public firestorm which might accompany such a bill, a “Myth vs. Reality” page was placed on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs website.  It states that the “threat of a catastrophic cyber attack is real,” and that such an attack “is not a matter of ‘if,’ but ‘when.'”  According to the Senate’s Sergeant at Arms, computer systems of the executive branch agencies and the Congress are now under cyber attack “an average of 1.8 BILLION times per month” and that “malicious cyber activity occurs on a daily basis, on an unprecedented scale, and with extraordinary sophistication.”

Critics of the bill have said such legislation gives the president a “kill switch” to shut down the entire Internet.  Yet according to the website, the president already has such power.  In testimony before a Senate committee on June 15, 2010, the Department of Homeland Security cited Section 706 of the Communications Act of 1934, which “provides nearly unchecked authority to the President to ’cause the closing of any facility or station for wire communication’ and ‘authorize the use of control of any such facility or station’ by the Federal government.  Exercise of the authority requires no advance notification to Congress and can be authorized if the President proclaims that “a state or threat of war” exists.  The authority can be exercised for up to six months after the ‘state or threat of war’ has expired.”

The site goes on to ostensibly debunk several other myths.  For example, the president cannot “take over the entire Internet,” “conduct electronic surveillance and monitor private networks, any more than is currently allowed under the Wiretap Act, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, or the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.” Nor would it give the president the power to “regulate the Internet,” or “circumvent or set aside international standards” for IT products or services.  Yet the bill would allow the president to make “risk-based security performance requirements” and “order emergency measures for our nation’s most critical infrastructure,” including “telecommunications networks, electric grid, financial system, and other components of critical infrastructure.”

S. 3480 was passed in committee, but that was as far as it got before the 111th Congress adjourned.  According to CNN, a “revised version” of the bill will make a return this year, including an ominous provision unmentioned by the HSGA website: “the federal government’s designation of vital Internet or other computer systems ‘shall not be subject to judicial review'” (italics mine).  Incredibly, any company objecting to restrictions placed on it during an emergency would still be permitted to appeal–to DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano, whose decision would be final.

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  • Cuban Refugee

    This administration's previous history of stomping on liberties should be a warning to any American who values freedom. Egypt was the perfect example of how easily shutting down cyberspace could happen. When this country faces the nitty-gritty — the realization that Social Security is but a Ponzi scheme worthy of Madoff; when the fraud and mismanagement that constitute government handout programs bubble over to the people who will riot in the streets when their food stamps stop coming; when citizens finally look behind the Potemkin village in Washington, and see the monumental lie that has been perpetrated on the voters — then, the same hand that signed off on nationalizations will shut off the switch for communication and information that unites the world. By then, it will be too late … we will all be slaves of elites with an internationalist agenda.

  • 888jah

    Get rid of Obama. He is taking us down the road to communism. I believe he is trying to push us into rebellion so he can declare marshal law and become a dictator which I believe he already is with the consent of the congress because they have failed to stop him. Power to shut the internet down is one more nail in our coffin.


    We must heed the warnings of our wise founding fathers and not allow too much power to be concentrated in the hands of a few. If it smells like we are losing freedoms we probably are in jeopardy in a BIG way. Keep their mits off free speech. We are not comparable to those nations where bullies have always assumed absolute power, as we have a more polite and systemic way of assuring folks ascending to a limited throne of power. Like the Robot in the tv show, Lost In Space, would say to us…."Warning, Warning….."

  • macronin

    This article perpetuates the myth that the cyber security bill sponsored by Senators Lieberman and Collins would authorize a “kill switch” that would allow the President to shut down the Internet.

    The reality is that the legislation would make it far less likely for a President to use the broad authority he already has in current law to take over communications networks. Section 706 of the Communications Act of 1934 provides nearly unchecked authority to the President to “cause the closing of any facility or station for wire communication” and “authorize the use of control of any such facility or station” by the Federal government.

    The Senators’ legislation would bring Presidential authority to respond to a major cyber attack into the 21st century by providing a precise, targeted, and focused way for the President to defend our most sensitive infrastructure. The bill does not authorize the government to “take over” critical infrastructure nor does it authorize any new surveillance authorities.

    The President would be required to provide advance notice to Congress of the intent to declare a national cyber emergency or as soon as possible after a declaration, with reasons why advance notice was not possible.

    Not a kill switch:

  • dcurio

    Who are you macronin? You related to Napolitano?

  • Jerome from Layton

    Just another Enabling Act.
    Nothing to see here; move along…..