Senators decry link between Egypt, 'kill switch' bill

Joseph Lieberman and two other senators who hope to hand the president emergency Internet authority are protesting comparisons to Egypt cutting off the Net.

Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
Declan McCullagh
4 min read

Three U.S. senators who want to give the president emergency powers over the Internet are protesting comparisons with the "kill switch" highlighted by Egypt's Net disconnection.

In a statement yesterday, the politicians said their intent was to allow the president "to protect the U.S. from external cyber attacks," not to shut down the Internet, and announced that they would revise their legislation to explicitly prohibit that from happening.

"Some have suggested that our legislation would empower the president to deny U.S. citizens access to the Internet," said the statement from Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), and Senator Tom Carper, (D-Del.). "Nothing could be further from the truth." Lieberman, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, is chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

They said, however, that they'll make sure their forthcoming legislation "contains explicit language prohibiting the president from doing what President [Hosni] Mubarak did."

Egypt restored Internet service to the country at 11:29 a.m. today Cairo time after a five-day blackout that was intended to quell anti-government protests.

The latest public version of their Internet emergency legislation, S.3480, was approved by Lieberman's committee in December but was not voted on in the full Senate.

Their so-dubbed "Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset Act" would hand the president power over privately owned computer systems during a "national cyber emergency" and prohibit review by the court system. CNET reported last week that it will be reintroduced in the new Congress.

If the president declares a "cyber emergency," according to a summary prepared by Lieberman's committee, the Department of Homeland Security could "issue mandatory emergency measures necessary to preserve the reliable operation of covered critical infrastructure." Although the term "kill switch" appears nowhere in the legislation, those "mandatory" measures could include ordering "critical" computers, networks, or Web sites disconnected from the Internet.

It also includes controversial new language--which did not appear in the initial version introduced last summer--saying that the federal government's designation of vital Internet or other computer systems "shall not be subject to judicial review."

Perhaps more than any other section of the legislation, that part has drawn significant criticism from industry representatives and civil libertarians.

After Egypt's decision to banish its Internet connection, the odds of the Lieberman-Collins-Carper bill being enacted have fallen, said Jim Harper, director of information policy studies at the Cato Institute. "It's part of growing recognition that centralizing control of communications infrastructure with government is poor civic hygiene," he said.

For the senators proposing this legislation, the timing was unfortunate. Less than 24 hours after Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and other Democrats sent out a press release last Wednesday outlining their rather vague plans for future legislation to "safeguard" the Internet, Egypt went offline. (Reid's placeholder bill is S.21.)

By the following afternoon, almost all Egyptian Internet providers ceased to publish information about electronic routes to their networks, making them unreachable worldwide. On Monday, the one apparently unaffected network, the Noor Group, followed suit and vanished around 12:46 p.m. PT. Noor's client list included ExxonMobil, Toyota, Hyatt, Coca-Cola, the American University in Cairo, and the Egyptian stock exchange.

Yesterday's statement from the three senators said that their forthcoming legislation features safeguards, including a requirement that any measures ordered by the president be "the least disruptive means feasible" and that the White House notify Congress after a "cyber security emergency" has been declared.

They also argue that a 1934 law (PDF) creating the Federal Communications Commission already gives the president broad powers and that theirs would be narrower.

That law says in wartime, or if a "state of public peril or disaster or other national emergency" exists, the president may "authorize the use or control of any such station or device." But the latest public draft of the Lieberman-Collins-Carper bill does not repeal that portion of existing law--it merely gives the executive branch additional authority.

Earlier versions of similar legislation have been more direct. A draft Senate proposal that CNET obtained in August 2009 authorized the White House to "declare a cybersecurity emergency," and another from Sens. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.V.) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) would have explicitly given the government the power to "order the disconnection" of certain networks or Web sites.

House Democrats also have been active on the topic, although a bill (H.R. 174) introduced last month by Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) is not as far-reaching. It would hand Homeland Security the power to "establish and enforce" security requirements for important "private sector computer networks." Missing, however, is any language granting the president new emergency authority.

Updated at 5:45 a.m. PT to reflect the end of Egypt's Internet ban.