Internet blockades: coming soon to a country near you!

You’ve heard about the chaos in Egypt. Ordinary citizens got tired of their oppressive ruler and took to the streets. There are tanks in Cairo, riots, mandatory curfews, and most surprisingly, no internet. It’s a terrifying thought; the idea that with a handful of phone calls the government is able to shut off internet and cell phone services for a country with 80 million people. (In Egypt only 20% of people have access to the internet through a home computer but 75% have cell phones.) The question isn’t why Egypt halted the internet, but why the United States is considering legislation to allow for the same thing to happen here.

For the second time a bill is being brought before Congress that gives the President power over privately owned computer systems during a “national cyberemergency” and prohibiting any review by the court system.

According to CNET:

“The revised Lieberman-Collins bill, dubbed the Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset Act, works this way: Homeland Security will “establish and maintain a list of systems or assets that constitute covered critical infrastructure” and that will be subject to emergency decrees.

Under the revised legislation, the definition of critical infrastructure has been tightened. DHS is only supposed to place a computer system (including a server, Web site, router, and so on) on the list if it meets three requirements. First, the disruption of the system could cause “severe economic consequences” or worse. Second, that the system “is a component of the national information infrastructure.” Third, that the “national information infrastructure is essential to the reliable operation of the system.”

President Obama would then have the power to “issue a declaration of a national cyberemergency.” What that entails is a little unclear, including whether DHS could pry user information out of Internet companies that it would not normally be entitled to obtain without a court order. One section says they can disclose certain types of noncommunications data if “specifically authorized by law,” but a presidential decree may suffice.

Senator Susan Collins, the author of the bill, claims that it isn’t “kill switch” legislation like what happened in Egypt. But with the vague definition of “cyberemergency” and “critical infrastructure” it can be justification for anything. All the president has to do is declare cyberemergency and he could shut down Google, Yahoo, and Hotmail, effectively halting all email. For however long he wanted.

The ACLU, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Center for Democracy and Technology, and numerous other groups think that it will be a tool for censorship. (The bill is co-sponsored by Sen. Joe Lieberman. He’s said before that it’s okay to pressure companies about internet content.) Once the bill gets revised and resubmitted it should be interesting to see where public supports lies.

The idea behind the bill is nothing new. Internet censorship/restriction is a hallmark of non-freedom loving countries. China blocks Google, Iran has censored social media sites in times of unrest, and all websites are under government control in North Korea. Are those really countries we want to use as role models for our internet policies?