Dead on arrival

In light of recent internet censorship, putting a “kill switch” in presidential hands is a bad idea

by Mike Munzenrider

Amid the recent protests, the Egyptian government effectively cut off its citizensâÄô Internet access and was criticized for its oppressive action by people and governments all over the world.
That same day, the so-called Internet “kill switch” bill  âÄî introduced last summer by U.S. Sens. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Tom Carper, D-Del. âÄîwas back in the news.  Ironic political timing like that just makes Jon StewartâÄôs job way too easy.
First introduced last June, the bill is officially named the Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset Act of 2010. Sponsors say the bill is intended to protect the nation against cyberattack. It caught plenty of flak last summer, for good reason.
Opponents stressed a âÄúkill switchâÄù aspect of the bill, and Lieberman and Collins were quick to issue a âÄúMyth versus RealityâÄù fact sheet to combat the idea.
The senators claim the new bill would actually dampen current presidential powers. As stated in their the fact sheet, under the Communications Act of 1934, the president has essentially unlimited power to âÄúcause the closing of any facility or station for wire communicationâÄù and âÄúauthorize the use of control of any such facility or stationâÄù by the federal government.
Under current law, the president is not required to get congressional approval to act and could keep such control for six months as long as a âÄústate or threat of warâÄù persists.
It appears the power to kill the Internet is already in the presidentâÄôs hands.
Lieberman and CollinsâÄô bill would require congressional approval of such extraordinary measures and limit their duration to 120 days.
Additionally, the president must use the âÄúleast disruptive means feasible,âÄù and their goal is to provide a âÄúprecise, targeted, and focused way for the president to defend our most sensitive infrastructure.âÄù
Finally, the presidentâÄôs actions cannot impinge on Internet activities protected by the First Amendment.
In light of the draconian powers afforded by the Communications Act of 1934, Lieberman and CollinsâÄô proposals sound like an improvement. Everyone, save the Dick Cheneys of the world, should be enthusiastic about checks and balances on presidential power and congressional approvals.
However, the Cyberspace Protection Act is frustratingly vague. The bill makes use of phrases like âÄúcritical infrastructure,âÄù to denote our most important networks, a phrase that reeks of subjectivity.
Beyond that, it provides inroads around congressional approval. Simply stated, the bill says the president must notify Congress of the intent to shut down/take over networks unless there are reasons advanced notice is not possible. Acceptable reasons are not discussed.
Worse yet, there is no requirement of judicial oversight. When the president decides to protect our critical Internet infrastructure, there would be no recourse in the courts to challenge the presidential powers once they go into effect.
Attempting to rebuff that report, a spokeswoman for the Senate Homeland Security Committee failed to offer much comfort, stating, âÄúthe idea that the CommitteeâÄôs bill was exempt from judicial review at any time is false.âÄù
From the laughable timing of its re-presentation, to the vaguely weak wording and troubling lack of checks and balances, the Cyberspace Protection Act is unconvincing when it comes to reigning in presidential power.
We need laws that will reasonably protect us against both cyberattack and presidential overreach âÄî well thought-out ones that wonâÄôt provide easy fodder for Stewart.