by Ian Huyett
In the event of a national emergency, the president should be able to shut off access to the Internet for our safety. Yeah, it doesn’t make sense to me either. But that seems to be the argument behind S.3480, the Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset Act, a 197-page bill that would grant the government vast new powers over the Internet in the name of cybersecurity.
If you’re wondering why our elected officials might want the ability to stop Americans from communicating with each other, you need only look to Egypt. There, a wave of protests, organized largely over Facebook, has unseated the nation’s tyrannical ruler. In an effort to quell the protests, Egypt’s government disconnected 80 service providers at 5:20 p.m. on Jan. 17, according to a Jan. 28 Arbor Networks article. The entire country was virtually shut off from the Internet.
S.3480, sponsored by Senator Joseph Lieberman, would give the president the power to do just that. In an Aug. 11, 2010, column, lawyer and Time writer Adam Cohen wrote, “Imagine a President misusing this particular power: If the people are rising up against an unpopular administration, the president could cool things down by shutting off a large swath of the Internet.”
Lieberman insists the bill is not intended to stifle free speech. Yet Lieberman, the former running mate of Al Gore, has a long record of advancing Orwellian policies aimed at expanding the government and trampling personal liberty. Lieberman has held congressional hearings on offensive music, tried to amend the Espionage Act to prosecute WikiLeaks and has been a staunch advocate of the Patriot Act. Lieberman is a longtime supporter of “Christians United for Israel” which overtly advocates a preemptive military strike against Iran.
When Lieberman defended his bill in a June 20, 2010, interview with CNN, he cited China as an example of good cybersecurity. “Right now China, the government, can disconnect parts of its Internet in case of war,” Lieberman said. “We need to have that here too.” China’s draconian control of the Internet has little to do with war; in June 2009, the Chinese government completely shut down the Internet across northwestern Xinjiang to silence a wave of dissent, according to a May 14, 2010, article in the Guardian.
It’s difficult to think of a scenario where shutting off major Internet providers would make Americans safer. If “cyber terrorists” want to shut down our infrastructure, we’ll respond by shutting down our infrastructure?
On the other hand, it’s easy to think of ways in which, as in Egypt and China, an oppressive government could abuse this power to stem the free flow of information and ideas.
The bill would work by creating a new agency within the Department of Homeland Security, the National Center for Cybersecurity and Communications, or NCCC. If the president decided to shut off Internet access, any private company reliant on the Internet would become “subject to command” by the NCCC, and would be required to “immediately comply with any emergency measure or action,” including “information sharing,” or else face charges, according to a June 17, 2010, article in the Huffington Post.
FDR’s Communications Act of 1934 already gives the president the authority to shut down “wire communications” during “a state or threat of war.” The new bill, however, would remove this precondition. The president could pull the plug on Internet providers whenever he deemed it necessary.
Short of an armed populace, the Internet is an oppressive government’s worst fear. It allows for a nearly limitless amount of simultaneous speech and makes total surveillance and regulation next to impossible. The governments of Egypt and China would not have shut it down if it weren’t vastly more difficult to manage and control it.
Americans can use the Internet as a vital tool to safeguard our inalienable rights. Or, as in Egypt and China, we can allow the government to assume control of it under the pretext of taking care of us.