Feature

The U.S. government's internet 'kill switch'

A bill currently before the Senate could give the president "absolute control" of the internet

The Senate is considering a bill that would give President Obama unprecedented new powers to control the internet in a national emergency. The bill, introduced by Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) would give the White House what some have called an internet "kill switch" allowing the president to shut down specific websites or whole portions of the internet. Lieberman says this will help protect "our economic security, national security, and public safety" from cyber-threats, but commentators on both the left and right have condemned the measure as a violation of online freedom. Here's a concise guide to the legislation:

What does the "kill switch" allow the government to do?The bill, formally titled the Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset Act (PCNAA), would allow the president to declare an emergency, and give specific orders to internet companies — for example, he might tell them to install a computer patch or block certain web traffic, Lieberman says, to protect networks vital to national security. The orders would be channeled through a new agency, the National Center for Cybersecurity and Communications (NCCC), and companies would have to "immediately comply" or face fines.

Which companies would be under the law's jurisdiction?In theory, all internet service providers, search engines, or software companies could be affected. The NCCC, which would be part of the Department of Homeland Security, could add any company that "relies on" the internet or any other part of the U.S. "information infrastructure" to their list.

What other powers would the NCCC have?The agency would have the ability to implement federally-approved security measures, such as data encryption or physical security precautions, on private websites, web service providers, and other internet-related companies. The NCCC also could order the companies to share information with the federal government, and provide "security status" updates.

What does the technology industry think of the bill?For the most part, internet companies don't like it. Technology lobby group TechAmerica says legislation could have "unintended consequences" and potentially give the White House "absolute power" over the internet. The Center for Democracy and Technology says it could let the government shut down even private computer networks. To help persuade the industry to embrace the bill, Lieberman has included a provision that would prevent customer lawsuits against companies affected during an "incident related to a cyber vulnerability," after the president declares a state of emergency.

Sources: CNet, CBS4, ZDNet, Escapist

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