U.S. senators who want to give the president power to shut down the Internet denounced Egypt's president for essentially doing the same thing.
"The steps the Mubarak government took last week to shut down Internet communications in Egypt were, and are, totally wrong," said Senators Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, Susan Collins of Maine, and Tom Carper of Delaware in a joint statement on Feb. 1. "His actions were clearly designed to limit internal criticisms of his government," the senators said.
The senators plan to reintroduce last spring's "Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset Act," a cyber-security bill that would hand control of non-governmental computer systems over to the president during a "national cyber-emergency."
If the president declares a cyber-emergency, the Department of Homeland Security could "issue mandatory emergency measures necessary to preserve the reliable operation of covered critical infrastructure," according to the bill's summary prepared by the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which Lieberman chairs.
Under the bill, Homeland Security would maintain the list of critical infrastructure. Computer systems, such as servers, Website and networking routers, would be included on the list if the disruption of the system could cause "severe economic consequences," is a "component of the national information infrastructure" and the national information infrastructure depends on its "reliable operation," according to the bill.
While the term "kill switch" does not exist in the legislation, the description of what the president can do includes ordering critical computers, networks and Websites to be disconnected from the Internet, according to the public version of the bill. Previous drafts proposed in 2009 were more explicit, giving the executive branch the power to "order the disconnection" of certain networks or Websites, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
One section of the bill reads as if the government could force the carriers to disclose certain types of non-communications data as part of the emergency measures.
Despite the controversial language in the bill, the senators said the proposed legislation was intended to protect the country from "external attacks" and that any exercise of "such broad authority" to "deny U.S. citizens access to the Internet" would be an "affront to our Constitution."
Moreover, the bill does not empower the president to order U.S. Internet service providers to turn off Internet access, the senators said. The Egyptian government reportedly called the five largest telecommunications companies in the country to shut down Internet services on Jan. 27 in response to mass demonstrations against President Hosni Mubarak's 30-year rule. Services were restored after five days of Internet blackout on Feb. 2.
The bill "already contains protections to prevent the President from denying Americans access to the Internet," even as it protects the "most critical services that rely on the Internet," according to the senators.
Regardless of whether the Department of Homeland Security was better equipped to handle cyber-security than companies like AT&T, Verizon, Microsoft and Google, which already spend billions of dollars securing their systems each year, industry watchers were more concerned the draft bill banned judicial review.
According to Steve DelBianco, director of the NetChoice coalition, companies would not be able to challenge in court whether their systems should be designated as critical information infrastructure. While the company can appeal the emergency orders to the DHS secretary, the courts are explicitly prohibited from getting involved under the bill.
The president currently has broader powers under the Communications Act of 1934 than sought by the Internet emergency bill, according to the senators. That Act authorizes the president to take over or shut down wire and radio communications in the event of or the threat of war. The senators called the law a "crude sledgehammer" and a "recipe for encroachments on privacy and civil liberties."
The proposed bill would ensure such broad authority is not used, because the measures apply only to the "most critical infrastructure," they said. Even though the president could act independently of the courts, the president would be required to notify Congress of the act, and would not be able to continue the measure beyond 120 days without Congressional approval, the senators said.
However, the latest draft of the bill doesn't repeal the section of the 1934 law giving the president such broad powers. In fact, the way the legislation is worded, this bill would give the chief executive additional authority.
However, in light of the controversy, the senators pledged to "ensure" that any future legislation contains "explicit language prohibiting the President from doing what President Mubarak did."