What, you hadn't heard?
"A Senate bill would offer President Obama emergency control of the Internet and may give him a "kill switch" to shut down online traffic by seizing private networks -- a move cybersecurity experts worry will choke off industry and civil liberties," FOX News said breathlessly. (Nice use of action verbs, though.)
"Obama-mania control of America continues,[sic] first the Census was pulled to the White House, now a bill that would give Obama and his unscrupulous cronies’[sic] control of the internet[sic] is making its way through the Senate," said examiner.com.
(Now that Fox News has hold of the story, expect a lot more of this. Funny how protective the right wing is of the Internet all of a sudden.)
The bill, S773, the "Cybersecurity Act of 2009," was introduced in April. It is intended to help protect national security in the event of war, natural disaster, or an act of cyberterrorism by giving the government the ability to control the Internet. The first take of the bill came under a fair amount of criticism at the time, through organizations such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
"One proposed provision gives the President unfettered authority to shut down Internet traffic in an emergency and disconnect critical infrastructure systems on national security grounds goes too far," the EFF said in April. "Certainly there are times when a network owner must block harmful traffic, but the bill gives no guidance on when or how the President could responsibly pull the kill switch on privately-owned and operated networks."
So why are people having conniption fits over a bill that was submitted in April and has had no action since then?
In response to the criticisms, bill sponsors Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-West Virginia) and Senator Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) have been working on the bill. CNET's Declan McCullagh has reportedly obtained a copy of it, and posted an article on Friday detailing what was different about the bill, which in some ways he finds worse in terms of specificity and limits.
Okay. Let us stipulate that the bill as written is untenable -- not specific enough, could be used badly by a bad President, opens up too many loopholes, etc.
That stipulated, let's stop running around like chickens with our heads cut off about it, for the following reasons:
1. The bill isn't done. The version McCullagh cites hasn't been submitted, as far as I can tell. This is the way the process of developing laws is supposed to work. There are a jillion people watching the progress of this bill. They're not going to sneak it by us. Let's let them finish writing the thing before we jump on it.
2. Like it or not, something like this is probably necessary. Anyone else old enough to remember the Morris Worm in 1988? People were panicked. (In one memorable case, the IT director ordered staff to *take an ax* to the cable connecting the company to the Internet.) And that was a bored college student. If someone breaks into the power grid via the Internet and starts shutting things off, say, do we really want no recourse? More pragmatically, do we really think the lack of a law would keep the government from doing whatever it could in such a situation?
3. Lest we forget (or lest we be too damn young to remember), the government started the Internet in the first place, and then insisted that it pay its own way and become commercial -- which a number of people thought would mean its death. (If anyone can find an online copy of "Whither NREN?" from Byte, July 1991, it lays out the issues pretty well, if I do say so myself -- though it has this sidebar by some obscure Senator from Tennessee for some reason.) Anyway, the Internet survived that just fine. Remember, the Internet was designed to survive a nuclear attack. FOX News aside, there's not going to be a big red button that says "Internet" that someone can push to shut it down.
By all means, let's follow this bill and examine it critically. But let's keep it in perspective.