Friday, January 28, 2011

If they move too quick (o-way-o) / They're falling down like a domino

In response to protests and riots, the Egyptian government shut down Twitter this past Tuesday. The following day, they shut down Facebook. When these steps did little to curb the protests, the Egyptian government shut down virtually all Internet access and SMS communications.

(One notable exception -- at least for a while -- included the Egyptian stock exchange's website.)

The move is unprecedented in Internet history. Although many have called the Internet "the great equalizer" when it comes to democracy and oppression, some experts say that the current crisis in Egypt demonstrates that the Internet doesn't equalize anything -- because the government can always just shut it down.

Of course, all one has to do is turn on the news -- or check the trending topics on Twitter (the Egypt-related ones, not the ones about Tracy Morgan) -- to see the near-global outcry in response to this Internet shutdown. With few exceptions, the world does not support the Egyptian government's actions here. Although a hindrance, this near-total shutdown of electronic communications may be fueling the fire as an example of further oppression.

In the developed world, being totally cut off from electronic communications is a scary thought. Good thing we don't have to worry about that kind of thing here in the United States...

...or do we?

Enter the proposed Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset Act of 2010.

This bill got a lot more attention this past week as Senator Joseph Lieberman has renewed a push to get the bill passed in the Senate. This past month, a Senate committee approved a revision of the bill as originally proposed.

Among other cybersecurity measures, the bill would give the President an Internet "kill switch" -- i.e., the power to shut down part or all of the Internet in case of a "cyber-emergency."

So far, believe it or not, this is not as ground-shaking as it sounds. The President probably already has the power to do this, with or without this bill, under both his Constitutional War Powers and The Communications Act of 1934. It would actually be good to have additional legislation governing an Internet take-over or shutdown, to provide legal clarity and guidance in case a cyber-emergency does occur.

There are some problems with the proposed "kill switch" legislation, however -- particularly in light of some of the revisions approved in committee.

Specifically, it specifies that the decisions about what electronic communications systems should or should not be shut be shut down "shall not be subject to judicial review." In other words, this legislation would make it impossible (or nearly impossible) to have a court of law review the government's determination. Specifically precluding judicial review would make the President's powers nearly unchecked.

(A spokeswoman for the Senate Homeland Security Committee tried to do some tap-dancing today in refuting reports that the bill precludes judicial review. Specifically, she claimed that the revised bill provides for more review than it did before because it provides for "agency review" (which is unappealable). That means nothing. Without judicial review, it still leaves the Executive Branch in total control.)

Both the present and most recent Presidential Administrations have been guilty of threatening personal freedoms when it comes to electronic communications. Indeed, the current Administration
  1. does not have a good record when it comes to speaking out for personal freedoms in other countries, and
  2. is developing a national Internet ID program that could threaten your Internet privacy rights.
Apologists may say that there's no need to worry about the Internet "kill switch" because the United States is a free country, and the President would never ever use it except in an emergency -- and only if he absolutely has to.

The Egyptian government has been faced with an emergency, too. And there is no doubt in my mind that they're doing only what they feel is absolutely necessary.

No comments:

Post a Comment