The Egyptian government's multiday deactivation of the Internet, in the wake of the turmoil in the country, have raised concerns and questions about whether the U.S. government could block Internet access by implementing a “kill switch“ to protect the country in the event of a cyber emergency.
Last summer, Sen. Joe Lieberman introduced the Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset Act of 2010, which would have authorized the standup of an Office of Cyberspace Policy. The new office would have been tasked with creating plans to protect the nation’s infrastructure from cyber attacks.
The bill, however, languished when Congress failed to act on it. But last week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid reintroduced the bill to the new Congress under the title Cyber Security and American Cyber Competitiveness Act of 2011,” The Washington Post reported.
The revised version says the federal government’s designation of vital Internet or other computer systems “shall not be subject to judicial review.” Another addition expanded the definition of critical infrastructure to include “provider of information technology,” and a third authorized the submission of “classified” reports on security flaws, ZDNet UK reported.
But critics were quick to express their concerns about the new proposal. Greg Nojeim, director of the Center for Democracy and Technology’s Project on Freedom, Security and Technology, told The Post the bill focuses on cybersecurity emergency measures, not on suppressing dissent. However, the measure is not adequate to ensure that such power to control Internet access is not abused, he added.
“What if the authority the bill gives the government to shut down or limit Internet traffic was abused?” Nojeim asked. “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.”
Privacy groups also voiced concerns. Wired reported that the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Library Association, Electronic Frontier Foundation and Center for Democracy & Technology were skeptical enough to file an open letter opposing the idea, citing concerns that the measure, if it became law, could be used to censor the Internet.
“It is imperative that cybersecurity legislation not erode our rights,“ the groups wrote last year to Congress.
But other experts say there’s no need to worry: a kill switch implementation would be near-impossible.
“It would be almost impossible for the government to shut down the whole Internet in the U.S.,” International Business Times wrote. The reason is that the Internet is not one network, but many, with several companies maintaining fiber optic networks, for example, and some of those are owned by foreign companies.
“The Metropolitan Area Exchange, an Internet exchange point that covers the East Coast, has 19 member carriers. Shutting down every avenue to the Internet, given the number of service providers, would be nearly impossible to do — and very expensive,” IBT pointed out.
However, if the government were able to shut down online access, there’s no guarantee it would stop citizens from accessing the web, Computerworld pointed out. CW’s Mike Elgan highlighted the ways Egyptian netizens were able to circumvent the government’s Internet block, including using Google-owned SayNow and Twitter to send Tweets via landline phone calls.
And in neighboring Morocco, Dr. Francesco Landogna, CEO of the site Wall5.com, set up a ghost portal that circumvented the virtual barriers implemented by Egyptian authorities, helping more than 200,000 Egyptians access the Internet.
“Events in Egypt have demonstrated that the human race has evolved some Internet protocols of our own,” Elgan wrote.
Also, an Internet kill switch could actually cause more problems that it would prevent, a report commissioned by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development argued.
“In the very simplest sense the Internet cannot really be switched off because it has no center,” the report said. “In most emergencies, you would want to give priority to doctors, but most doctors and their surgeries use the same downstream Internet facilities as the bulk of the population and there would be no easy way to identify them. Localized Internet switch-off is likely to have significant unwanted consequences.”