The Internet kill switch and why it would never work in the U.S.

u.s. cybersecurity

A Google server rack: Cybersecurity measures proposed in the Internet kill switch bill may work in Egypt, but such actions are more challenging in the U.S. Image: CC Liz Henry/Flickr

“Internet kill switch” is the dramatic catch phrase describing a bill in Congress to strengthen U.S. cybersecurity. Internet kill switch refers to the “Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset Act of 2010” that was introduced in the Senate last summer but got little notice. The so-called Internet kill switch bill was reintroduced just as the Egyptian government shut down the Internet nationwide in an effort to stifle dissent.

The Senate Internet kill switch bill

The Internet kill switch bill is a broad cybersecurity proposal to create a White House office of cyberspace policy and a cybersecurity center under the authority of the Homeland Security Department. The Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset Act of 2010 was introduced by Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., in June. Lieberman’s intent was to draft legislation to protect the economic infrastructure of the Internet from cyberterrorism. The Internet kill switch bill was approved with bipartisan support by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee but fell by the wayside as the 111th Congress came to an end.

Internet kill switch and the First Amendment

The Internet kill switch bill reemerged this week when it was resuscitated by Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, the ranking Republican on the Homeland Security committee. The bill raised concerns with free speech advocates last summer when it was introduced, and those concerns have intensified after Egypt pulled the plug on Internet service providers. A Homeland Security spokesperson said the bill is written to protect critical infrastructure, such as e-commerce and public utilities, from cyberattack. The bill includes provisions forbidding any violation of the First Amendment.

What’s easy in Egypt is impossible in the U.S.

The most controversial provision of the Internet kill switch bill authorizes the president to issue an executive order blocking access to such critical infrastructure when a threat is perceived. In the U.S., that is easier said than done. In Egypt, the government owns the ISP, Telecom Egypt. If a cyberattack occurs in the U.S., the federal government has no control over thousands of ISPs. Even if it did, as the Internet perpetually grows more complex in the U.S., the government’s ability to disrupt connectivity becomes more challenging. If an Internet kill switch ever existed, chances are it would never work.



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