The US senators pushing a controversial new bill that some fear would give President Barack Obama the powers to seize control of and even shut down the internet have rejected claims it would give Obama a net “kill switch”.
The bill, titled Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset Act, has been unanimously approved by the US Homeland Security committee and will be put to a vote on the Senate floor shortly.
Lobby groups and academics quickly rounded on the bill, which seeks to grant the President broad emergency powers over the internet in times of national emergency.
Any internet firms and providers must “immediately comply with any emergency measure or action developed” by a new section of the US Department of Homeland Security, dubbed the “National Centre for Cybersecurity and Communications”.
The critics said that, rather than combat terrorists, it would actually do them “the biggest favour ever” by terrorising the rest of the world, which is now heavily reliant on cyberspace.
Australian academics criticised the description in the bill’s title of the internet as a US “national asset”, saying any action would disrupt other countries as most of the critical internet infrastructure is located in the US.
This week, 24 privacy and civil liberties groups sent a letter raising concerns about the legislation to the sponsors, including that it could limit free speech and free inquiry, Computerworld reported.
“We are concerned that the emergency actions that could be compelled could include shutting down or limiting internet communications,” the letter reads.
But the architects of the plan, committee chairman Senator Joe Lieberman and Senator Susan Collins, have this week released a “Myth v. Reality” document that hits back at these criticisms.
They say the threat of a catastrophic cyber attack is real and not a matter of “if” but “when”. Cyber crime was also costing the US economy billions of dollars annually and the bill would “modernise the government’s ability to safeguard the nation’s cyber networks from attack and will establish a public/private partnership to set national cyber security priorities”.
The senators rejected the “kill switch” claim, arguing that the President already had authority under the Communications Act to “cause the closing of any facility or station for wire communication” when there is a “state or threat of war”.
They said under the new bill the President would be far less likely to use the broad authority he already has under current law to take over communications. It would provide “a precise, targeted and focused way for the President to defend our most sensitive infrastructure”.
Any action would be limited to 30-day increments and the President must use the “least disruptive means feasible” to respond to the threats. Action extended beyond 120 days would need Congressional approval.
The bill would not give the President the authority to take over the entire internet, target specific websites or conduct electronic surveillance.
“Only specific systems or assets whose disruption would cause a national or regional catastrophe would be subject to the bill’s mandatory security requirements,” the senators wrote.