A new US Senate Bill would grant the President far-reaching emergency powers to seize control of, or even shut down, portions of the internet.
The legislation says that companies such as broadband providers, search engines or software firms that the US Government selects "shall immediately comply with any emergency measure or action developed" by the Department of Homeland Security. Anyone failing to comply would be fined.
That emergency authority would allow the Federal Government to "preserve those networks and assets and our country and protect our people," Joe Lieberman, the primary sponsor of the measure and the chairman of the Homeland Security committee, told reporters on Thursday. Lieberman is an independent senator from Connecticut who meets with the Democrats.
Due to there being few limits on the US President's emergency power, which can be renewed indefinitely, the densely worded 197-page Bill (PDF) is likely to encounter stiff opposition.
TechAmerica, probably the largest US technology lobby group, said it was concerned about "unintended consequences that would result from the legislation's regulatory approach" and "the potential for absolute power". And the Center for Democracy and Technology publicly worried that the Lieberman Bill's emergency powers "include authority to shut down or limit internet traffic on private systems."
The idea of an internet "kill switch" that the President could flip is not new. A draft Senate proposal that ZDNet Australia's sister site CNET obtained in August allowed the White House to "declare a cybersecurity emergency", and another from Sens. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.V.) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) would have explicitly given the government the power to "order the disconnection" of certain networks or websites.
On Thursday, both senators lauded Lieberman's Bill, which is formally titled Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset Act, or PCNAA. Rockefeller said "I commend" the drafters of the PCNAA. Collins went further, signing up at a co-sponsor and saying at a press conference that "we cannot afford to wait for a cyber 9/11 before our government realises the importance of protecting our cyber resources".
Under PCNAA, the Federal Government's power to force private companies to comply with emergency decrees would become unusually broad. Any company on a list created by Homeland Security that also "relies on" the internet, the telephone system or any other component of the US "information infrastructure" would be subject to command by a new National Center for Cybersecurity and Communications (NCCC) that would be created inside Homeland Security.
The only obvious limitation on the NCCC's emergency power is one paragraph in the Lieberman Bill that appears to have grown out of the Bush-era flap over wiretapping without a warrant. That limitation says that the NCCC cannot order broadband providers or other companies to "conduct surveillance" of Americans unless it's otherwise legally authorised.
Lieberman said on Thursday that enactment of his Bill needed to be a top congressional priority. "For all of its 'user-friendly' allure, the internet can also be a dangerous place with electronic pipelines that run directly into everything from our personal bank accounts to key infrastructure to government and industrial secrets," he said. "Our economic security, national security and public safety are now all at risk from new kinds of enemies — cyber-warriors, cyber-spies, cyber-terrorists and cyber-criminals."