Obama's "Internet kill switch" powers under review
William Clowes: Obama's "Internet kill switch" powers under review
25 Nov 10

It sounds alarming: the “Internet kill switch”. It also sounds alarming that under a law passed over 60 years ago Barack Obama (or any US president) has an opaquely defined authority to shut down sections of the Internet in the event of a national emergency.

At its inception the law addressed state control over telephone and telegraph networks. Obviously the law made no mention of the Internet, but made vague references to means of communication. Specifically, it is cited that provisions in the Communications Act give the president the power to “suspend or amend the rules and regulations applicable to any or all facilities or stations for wire communication”.

In June, the Obama administration introduced a bill which strove to give a newly created National Center for Cybersecurity and Communications significant control over the Internet in times of national emergency. The bill, having been approved, is now due to go before the Senate.

Presidential power in the event of an attack on America seems not to be the predominant objection amongst the bill’s critics, but rather it is the lack of specification that raises concerns. A letter sent in June to the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs by the ACLU and 23 other groups expressed such worries. They sought assurances that “cybersecurity measures” would not “unnecessarily infringe on free speech, privacy, and other civil liberties interests” and asked for the committee to “clarify the scope of the legislation”.

In terms of how these powers would be employed, it has been suggested the president could make use of them to combat a hostile assault on the computer systems of America’s utility companies or Wall Street financial services. This is neither an abstract threat nor a provision for the future: This year US government agencies have been hit by an average 1.8 billion cyber attacks each month — and that number is constantly rising.

The many suggestions of discomfort and unease about the prying capabilities of Google Street View demonstrate a similar strain of thinking about the private sector. The disquiet around the hyperbolically named “kill switch” is again not a case of libertarian horror towards any assumption of influence by the state. In fact, a recent survey suggested that 61 per cent of Americans supported the president’s right to shut down parts of the Internet if their nation came under cyber attack. Regardless of whether the moves to monitor and control come from the private sector or the state, people (ever concerned with the balance between security and privacy) want these powers clearly outlined and legally delimited.