Legislation granting the president internet-killing powers is to be re-introduced soon to a Senate committee, the proposal’s chief sponsor told Wired.com on Friday.
The resurgence of the so-called “kill switch” legislation came the same day Egyptians faced an internet blackout designed to counter massive demonstrations in that country.
The bill, which has bipartisan support, is being floated by Sen. Susan Collins, the Republican ranking member on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. The proposed legislation, which Collins said would not give the president the same power Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak is exercising to quell dissent, sailed through the Homeland Security Committee in December but expired with the new Congress weeks later.
The bill is designed to protect against “significant” cyber threats before they cause damage, Collins said.
“My legislation would provide a mechanism for the government to work with the private sector in the event of a true cyber emergency,” Collins said in an e-mail Friday. “It would give our nation the best tools available to swiftly respond to a significant threat.”
The timing of when the legislation would be re-introduced was not immediately clear, as kinks to it are being worked out.
An aide to the Homeland Security committee described the bill as one that does not mandate the shuttering of the entire internet. Instead, it would authorize the president to demand turning off access to so-called “critical infrastructure” where necessary.
An example, the aide said, would require infrastructure connected to “the system that controls the floodgates to the Hoover dam” to cut its connection to the net if the government detected an imminent cyber attack.
What’s unclear, however, is how the government would have any idea when a cyber attack was imminent or why the operator wouldn’t shutter itself if it detected a looming attack.
About two dozen groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Library Association, Electronic Frontier Foundation and Center for Democracy & Technology, were skeptical enough to file an open letter opposing the idea. They are concerned that the measure, if it became law, might be used to censor the internet.
“It is imperative that cyber-security legislation not erode our rights,” (.pdf) the groups wrote last year to Congress.
A congressional white paper (.pdf) on the measure said the proposal prohibits the government from targeting websites for censorship “based solely on activities protected by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.”
Oddly, that’s exactly the same language in the Patriot Act used to test whether the government can wiretap or investigate a person based on their political beliefs or statements.