A Senate Committee has approved a cyber security bill that would give the President the authority to shut down parts of the internet for up to four months without Congressional approval in the event of a cyber attack.
The Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset Act, which is being pushed hard by Senator Joe Lieberman, would hand absolute power to the federal government to close down networks, and block incoming Internet traffic from certain countries under a declared national emergency.
Despite the Center for Democracy and Technology and 23 other privacy and technology organizations sending letters to Lieberman and other backers of the bill expressing concerns that the legislation could be used to stifle free speech, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee passed in the bill in advance of a vote on the Senate floor.
In response to widespread criticism of the bill, language was added that would force the government to seek congressional approval to extend emergency measures beyond 120 days. Still, this would hand Obama the authority to shut down the Internet on a whim without Congressional oversight or approval for a period of no less than four months.
From what we gather, under a declaration of war the President could take the unprecedented action of shutting down some or all of the internet.
Supporters of the bill argue that vulnerable private networks like communications and utilities could be the first to come under attack. In a previous article we noted that it would take about 15 minutes to cripple the entire United States in such an event. Everything from just-in-time food distribution systems to text messaging could be disabled by an attack on the US internet infrastructure.
While a threat most certainly exists, and we believe that cyber security policies should be implemented on the Federal level from a national security perspective, there are obvious dangers to liberty with laws such as this, especially if a single branch of government has complete tyrannical control.
It is not exactly clear under what conditions the President could exercise these emergency powers. Though, it doesn’t really matter what’s in the bill, as the President can simply sign an executive order directive to do the same at anytime and for any reason.
Take, for example, a situation where mass protests and/or riots were to spread across major cities in the United States. If law enforcement was unable to contain these events, under emergency powers, the President would have the power to immediately shut down internet social networking, email or even text messaging service, preventing would-be protesters from communicating and organizing.
Another example could be found in historical precedent, when the US Congress passed the Sedition Act of 1918 – an obvious violation of first amendment rights:
Excerpt from Section 3
Whoever, when the United States is at war, shall willfully make or convey false reports…with intent to interfere with the operation…of the military or naval forces of the United States…
or say or do anything…to an investor…with intent to obstruct the sale by the United States of bonds or other securities…
and whoever when the United States is at war, shall willfully cause or attempt to cause… insubordination… in the military or naval forces of the United States,
or shall willfully obstruct or attempt to obstruct the recruiting or enlistment services of the United States
and whoever, when the United States is at war, shall willfully utter, print, write or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of government of the United States or the Constitution…or the military or naval forces of the United States, or the flag…
or shall willfully utter, print, write, or publish any language intended to incite, provoke, or encourage resistance to the United States…
or shall willfully by utterance, writing, printing, publication, or language spoken, urge…any curtailment of production in this country of any thing…necessary…to the prosecution of the war…
and whoever shall willfully advocate…the doing of any of the acts or things in this section enumerated…or favor the cause of any country with which the United States is at war…
shall be punished by a fine of not more than $10,000 or the imprisonment for not more than twenty years, or both….
Thus, this is nothing new, even though President Obama and Senator Joe Lieberman are easy targets for our frustration and anger. Once this cyber security bill passes Congress, it will be clear that there are several hundred elected officials to blame, not just one or two.
The most difficult thing to accept, however, is that once such powers are implemented there will be no easy way for the American people to organize to overturn it, as all communication systems that make it possible for people to network will be under control of the Executive branch.