Egypt's Web blockade raises concerns about 'kill switch' for Internet

The news of Egypt's crackdown on Web access is raising new concerns over a comprehensive cybersecurity bill that critics claim gives the president a "kill switch" for the Internet.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) has recently indicated she plan to re-introduce the bipartisan legislation she crafted last year with Senate Homeland Security Committee chairman Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), which passed the Senate Homeland Security Committee last year only to get mired in a standoff with Senate Commerce Committee members over which panel should have oversight of civilian cybersecurity.

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Civil rights advocates such as the ACLU also raised concerns about the bill, which they claim gives the president the ability to shut down the Web in the event of a catastrophic cyber-attack.

Specifically, observers are concerned the new version of the bill will reportedly not allow for judicial review when the administration shuts down a network under attack.

Those concerns have been heightened by the Egyptian government's move this week to cut off communications amid ongoing protests against the regime of President Hosni Mubarak. Both the U.S. government and Web firms like Facebook have criticized the move.

"Those in Congress who have proposed an 'Internet Kill Switch' for the U.S. should realize the danger of their proposal now that Egyptian President Mubarak has flipped such a switch to stifle dissent in Egypt," said Berin Szoka, president of the libertarian think tank TechFreedom.

"This incident also demonstrates a more subtle point: Maintaining the rule of law in times of crisis demands judicial review for the president's decision to designate something a 'critical asset' subject to government diktat in the name of protecting 'cybersecurity.' "

Collins has bristled at that characterization, pointing out that the White House has indicated they already have the authority to shut down portions of the private-sector Web in the event of a national security emergency under a little-used provision of the Communications Act passed one month after the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor.

A Senate aide also pointed out that the infrastructure of the U.S.-based Web is designed in such a fashion that no single "kill switch" to take down the entire network exists. Instead, a fiber-optic backbone connects servers in several geographically diverse locations to ensure continuity even in the event of an attack.

But the main barrier to the adoption of the bill appears to be resistance among Republicans to putting more on the plate of the Department of Homeland Security, rather than concerns about the freedom of the Web.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) openly questioned DHS's ability to effectively oversee civilian cybersecurity, and House Republicans have suggested the Pentagon and the National Security Agency, which are collaborating on military cybersecurity, should be responsible for protecting all of the nation's networks.

The widespread disagreement over who should manage cybersecurity and how they should do it makes it appear unlikely a comprehensive bill will pass in the near future.

Instead, a Senate aide said they are considering breaking off more popular measures, such as an overhaul of the Federal Information Security Management Act (FISMA) that governs cybersecurity at federal agencies, and passing them attached to larger spending bills.

Last week, seven influential Senate Committee chairmen joined Majority Leader Harry Reid in introducing a placeholder bill intended to demonstrate their commitment to passing comprehensive cybersecurity legislation this year. However, the bill is short on details, such as how the lawmakers plan to move forward.

Editor's note: This story was updated to reflect the status of new cybersecurity legislation.