Friday, July 1, 2011

The "Internet Kill Switch" needs some safe guards

Recently, under the radar of all the other arguments that our culture is currently debating, the senate passed out of committee a bill entitled, “Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset Act.” (at this writing it is not clear to the author what the current status of the bill is). The act would establish the “Office of Cyberspace Policy and National Center for Cybersecurity and Communications.” It directs this new office to set standards and coordinate cybersecurity efforts within the government. The bill is sponsored by Senator Joseph Lieberman (I, Connecticut), Susan Collins (R Maine) and Tom Carper (D Delaware).

The biggest concern about the bill is that it would authorize the President of the United States to shut down all or parts of the internet during Internet-based attacks that threaten national security without review of the courts. Whenever the term “national security” is used, it is suppose to make all of us flinch and allow our freedoms to be limited. It provides the ground work to take action without authorization from the courts much like Bush’s actions after the 9-11 attacks.

Before anyone thinks that this is national issue that doesn’t affect main street and your neighborhood, please reconsider. The uprisings in many countries around the world over the last year, especially during the Arab Spring, have been supported by the internet. The right to free speech about the issues in those faraway places was enhanced by communication on the internet. It drove the passions of people that seek their freedom from the dictators of countries that oppressed their citizens for far too long.

If the freedoms of everyday people in those oppressed nations had not been stomped down, there would have been evolutionary change in the governments that control those countries and violent change would not have been necessary. But, since freedoms that are basic to all people were suppressed, the governments held a firm hold over the masses. It was the rise of the internet that allowed people to coordinate protests (the basic right of assembly) and demand change (a redress of their grievances).

With the free flow of information about issues, we can all make informed decisions about the threats that face our community. To hear from many voices about the ideas and actions of others is to foster an open dialogue about solutions and actions to take. In the countries that experienced the upheavals of the last few months, especially the more sophisticated and developed countries, the internet was controlled or in some places shut down as a first line of defense to the protests. In the United States, or any nation, to place the same power as is held by the dictators in the hands of very few people without review, is a dangerous act.

But, there is a more practical and simple reason to prevent such power without review to take place. Much of our communication not only between political groups but also between loved ones, friends and others is facilitated by the internet. To be able to connect with them in times of trouble is to ease the fear and panic that is created by crisis.

There does need to be a policy, well developed and measured, in the event of attack to the internet. We can’t be blind to the fact that there are those that would do us harm. The community needs to respond appropriately to prevent the loss of lives and assets. The creation of a cybersecurity team may be the correct path to take. But, the power placed in the executive branch must be balanced by a review from both the courts and the congress. This will prevent a stomping down of rights that is the hallmark of totalitarian governments.

This is the way an open community works best.

Note: Three things presented themselves while writing this blog post.

The First amendment of the Constitution guarantees not only the freedom of speech, but also of the press. The authors clearly meant to identify two issues, speech and the right to distribute that speech through a medium, in this case the internet.

Second, another issue linked to this one is net neutrality. There are those in congress that would like to limit the amount of the internet that users can connect to, leaving that decision to the market. But, as is identified above, the Constitution clearly makes the distribution of speech a right. To limit it would be hard to justify.

Finally, the word cybersecurity used in the act. It is such a new term that the word processing software used to write this post didn’t have the term in the spell check data base. Therefore, it marked the word as misspelled. This is how new this issue is in our culture.

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