As we learn that the Australian government is trying to force web companies to store the history of internet users, America is considering going down a path that is almost inevitable. Being able to harness the internet, a medium that loves to give the finger to regulation (hello Wikileaks), frustrates those who want to control information:
A new US Senate Bill would grant the President far-reaching emergency powers to seize control of, or even shut down, portions of the internet.
The legislation says that companies such as broadband providers, search engines or software firms that the US Government selects “shall immediately comply with any emergency measure or action developed” by the Department of Homeland Security. Anyone failing to comply would be fined.
That emergency authority would allow the Federal Government to “preserve those networks and assets and our country and protect our people,” Joe Lieberman, the primary sponsor of the measure and the chairman of the Homeland Security committee, told reporters on Thursday. Lieberman is an independent senator from Connecticut who meets with the Democrats.
Due to there being few limits on the US President’s emergency power, which can be renewed indefinitely, the densely worded 197-page Bill (PDF) is likely to encounter stiff opposition.
TechAmerica, probably the largest US technology lobby group, said it was concerned about “unintended consequences that would result from the legislation’s regulatory approach” and “the potential for absolute power”. And the Center for Democracy and Technology publicly worried that the Lieberman Bill’s emergency powers “include authority to shut down or limit internet traffic on private systems.”
The idea of an internet “kill switch” that the President could flip is not new. A draft Senate proposal that ZDNet Australia’s sister site CNET obtained in August allowed 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 websites.
On Thursday, both senators lauded Lieberman’s Bill, which is formally titled Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset Act, or PCNAA. Rockefeller said “I commend” the drafters of the PCNAA. Collins went further, signing up at a co-sponsor and saying at a press conference that “we cannot afford to wait for a cyber 9/11 before our government realises the importance of protecting our cyber resources”.