Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Internet Kill Switch?

AccessNow just sent me an email, urging me to sign a petition opposing something that's been back in the news lately. They say, in part:

The "internet kill switch" can work in one of two ways: either by giving the government the legal authority to demand that all internet service providers (ISPs) shut down, or by configuring a “switch” that controls their country’s entire internet infrastructure.

I have heard sporadic mention of proposed legislation here in the US to implement such a thing, though I don't know many details. Here's one from Declan McCullagh at CNet that sounds particularly chilling, though:

The revised version includes new language saying that the federal government's designation of vital Internet or other computer systems "shall not be subject to judicial review."

Mike Elgan of PCWorld has a post up titled "Why There's No Such Thing as an Internet Kill Switch," which, I have to say, fails to deliver on the promise of its headline. I do agree with his point about people being both used to connecting and resourceful, so that attempts to "shut down the Internet" tend not to be as permanently effective as totalitarians would like. However, let's agree that the impetus he has in mind -- the response to events in Egypt -- was a bit more pronounced than usual, to put it mildly.

David Kravets, writing about the proposed legislation on Wired's Threat Level blog a couple of weeks ago, has an arresting conclusion:

About two dozen groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Library Association, Electronic Frontier Foundation and Center for Democracy & Technology, were skeptical enough to file an open letter opposing the idea. They are concerned that the measure, if it became law, might be used to censor the internet.

“It is imperative that cyber-security legislation not erode our rights,” (.pdf) the groups wrote last year to Congress.

A congressional white paper (.pdf) on the measure said the proposal prohibits the government from targeting websites for censorship “based solely on activities protected by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.”

Oddly, that’s exactly the same language in the Patriot Act used to test whether the government can wiretap or investigate a person based on their political beliefs or statements.

Speaking of that monument to Orwellianism, it was good to hear that the House did not pass extension of certain provisions of the PATRIOT Act. As KK put it, who would have thought Dennis Kucinich could get the teabaggers and the ACLU to agree on anything? And shoutout to a couple dozen Republicans!

Or not.

Coming back down, the reality of the situation is that the measure was defeated only because it just missed reaching the two-thirds majority threshold (required in this instance because it was some sort of "expedited" bill). The more accurate way to describe matters is that by a measure of 277-148, our so-called representatives would like very much to …

... reauthorize three expiring powers under the PATRIOT Act--among them, allowing ''roving wiretaps'' and searches of people's medical, banking, and library records.

And also:

... the "lone-wolf" provision of a 2004 anti-terror law that permits secret intelligence surveillance of non-U.S. people not known to be affiliated with a specific terrorist organization.

Further, it looks like the bill will soon come back to the floor of the House, and this time, it will only require a simple majority to pass.

So, it seems to me that this talk of an Internet kill switch is worth keeping an eye on. If nothing else, the PATRIOT Act ought to remind us (1) that it's far easier to stop any given attempt by the government to encroach upon on civil liberties before it gets codified into law, (2) that "temporary" measures in law rarely go away, and (3) that "just in case of emergency" is the foot in the door to what quickly becomes standard practice.

(pic. source)

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