Just as the Egyptian government recently forced the Internet to go dark, U.S. officials could flip the switch if the Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset legislation becomes law, say its critics.
Proponents of the bill, which is expected to be reintroduced in the current session of Congress, dismiss the detractors as ill-informed — even naive.
The ominously nicknamed Kill Switch bill is sure to be a flashpoint of discussion at the RSA Conference, the nation’s largest gathering of computer-security experts that takes place here this week.
The bill — crafted by Sens. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn.; Susan Collins, R-Maine; and Tom Carper, D-Del. — aims to defend the economic infrastructure from a cyberterrorist attack. But it has free-speech advocates and privacy experts howling over the prospect of a government agency quelling the communication of hundreds of millions of people.
“This is all about control, an attempt to control every aspect of our existence,” says Christopher Feudo, a cybersecurity expert who is chairman of SecurityFusion Solutions. “I consider it an attack on our personal right of free speech. Look what recently occurred in Egypt.”
Its critics immediately dubbed it Kill Switch, suffusing it with Big Brother-tinged foreboding. “Unfortunately, it got this label, which is analogous to death panels (during the health care debates),” says Mark Kagan, director of research at Keane Federal Systems, an information-technology contractor for the government.
The disruption to communications and economic activity “could be catastrophic,” says Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.
Computer-security expert Ira Winkler, a staunch advocate of the legislation, counters, “The fact that people are complaining about this fact is grossly ignorant of the real world. The fact critical infrastructure elements are even accessible to the Internet is the worst part to begin with.”
The overheated debate takes place against the backdrop of revolution in the Middle East and a recent breach of Nasdaq’s computer system. Both underline the power of the Internet, its vulnerability and the importance of cybersecurity.
It also underscores the delicate balance between protecting the Internet — the largest communications device — and unfettered free speech.
The autocratic government of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak ordered the shutdown of four major Internet service providers, effectively shuttering the Internet in Egypt for several days. Could that happen in the U.S. if the bill becomes law?
In the U.S., there are 2,000 to 4,000 Internet providers, many of whom virulently oppose government interference that would put a clamp-down on their businesses.
“When it comes to practicalities, I would be surprised if anything comes to (a kill switch),” says Reputation.com CEO Michael Fertik, a lawyer with expertise in constitutional law and Internet privacy law. “If (the bill and president) strays too far, it would be extremely unpopular.”