Kill the kill switch?



When the Egyptian government shut down online communications in the wake of mass protests, it was largely unprecedented and deeply alarming. However on the same day, Republican Senator Susan Collins reintroduced a bill which, if passed, could potentially allow the President to act similarly in the US.

Called, in all seriousness, the "Cybersecurity and Internet Freedom Act of 2011", the bill has the stated intent of enabling the executive office to shut down "critical infrastructure" in the event of an emergency or cyberattack, among other provisions. In line with this, the bill calls for the Department of Homeland Security to create a list of systems or assets that constitute critical cyber-infrastructure. The President would then be able to control, and if desired, turn off these systems.

The problem is that none of this would be subject to judicial review. And, given recent events in Egypt, this is cause for concern. Several groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, Electronic Frontier Foundation and Center for Democracy & Technology, filed an open letter opposing the idea, out of concern that the act could potentially be used to censor the internet.

For a great overview of some of the subtleties involved, check out Jonathan Zittrain and Molly Sauter's recent article in MIT's Technology Review. They describe things the bill can and can't do, as well as some of their major concerns.

Photo: © UNICEF/NYHQ2011-0224/Roger LeMoyne. On 4 February, a boy, sitting on a man’s shoulders, joins in the chanting of slogans, part of a mass public demonstration in Tahrir Square in Cairo, the capital. The boy and many of the men around him wear bandages that cover injuries sustained during the demonstrations.

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