Putting A “Kill Switch” On The Internet


If Sen. Joe Lieberman has his way, President Obama will soon have the power to put a “kill switch” on the Internet. That is, in the event of a “national cyber emergency,” Obama and anyone who follows him into office will have the authority to shut down all or part of the Internet, to order site owners to censor certain types of content, or to halt incoming or outgoing traffic from selected sources.

Lieberman’s dense 197-page bill is the usual masterpiece of misdirection and is subject to all manner of after-passage regulatory manipulations. So it’s impossible to say what the real-world consequences would be. Certainly, Obama or a successor could order search engines to censor selected search terms (such as “Bushmaster” or “tactical ops” or, for that matter, “Claire Wolfe” or “S.W.A.T. magazine”). They could tell search engines to stop reporting results from selected sites (for instance, GunsAmerica.com, The Drudge Report, Wikileaks or Al Jazeera).

They could quite easily knock any individual website out of commission and close down vast groups of sites with no great effort. They could order a halt to all traffic coming from or going to certain countries (although in that they would quickly be defeated by resourceful “hacktivists” who know how to go around such restrictions). The bill also requires “information sharing” on command— meaning full, warrantless access to emails, bank records, surfing history of individuals, confidential site protocols, or whatever else the federal government wishes to look at.

Lieberman’s bill may not pass. But whether or not it does, the federal effort to control the content of the Internet will continue. In fact, it’s already ongoing on several fronts.

Lieberman’s bill is an echo of one introduced in 2009 by Sens. John Rockefeller and Olympia Snowe. The Federal Communications Commission, on no legal authority at all, is moving to regulate the ‘Net using such warm, fuzzy terms as “net neutrality” and “fair access.” Again, no one knows where such efforts will end up, although both Lieberman’s plan and the FCC’s are vociferously opposed by people who understand the Internet, cherish liberty and know exactly how federal mission-creep and crony-capitalism work. (It’s instructive that, in the name of “fair access,” the Wall Street Journal reports that the FCC has been holding hush-hush meetings with corporate giants AT&T, Google, Verizon, and the National Cable & Telecommunications Association.)

One way or another, the federal government is determined to control the Internet.

Sen. Lieberman himself gave one big clue as to what’s in store if his bill, or some similar measure, passes. He told “my friends on the Internet” they should just relax, and he told CNN’s Candy Crowley, “Right now, China, the government, can disconnect parts of its Internet in a case of war. We need to have that here, too.”

There are three things wrong with those statements. First of all, nobody should ever relax when the federal government is expanding its powers, particularly its powers over the free flow of information. Second, when did U.S. officials decide that China is a great model for freedom? And third, this has nothing to do with war.

This is about controlling the media and silencing dissent. Period.

Obama was credited as the nation’s first “Internet president” for his 2008 campaign’s savvy use of the medium. However, he is also notoriously thinskinned about any criticism (as is common with national leaders). Since winning office, Obama has broken every promise he ever made about “transparency in government,” including his promise to put all proposed legislation online so that the public could read it before passage. His administration is more secretive than the notoriously secretive regime of George W. Bush.

Obama has lamented the Internet as “a distraction, a diversion” that puts “new pressure on our country and on our de-mocracy.” His Federal Trade Commission
recently produced a draft plan to “save” journalism. How? By taxing and regulating the lively, unfettered journalistic world of Internet publishers and bloggers and using the resultant money and power to shore up the old, dying, government-friendly print media. It would be laughable if the potential consequences weren’t so dire. Lieberman’s bill is part and parcel of these Obamist attitudes.

And what about Lieberman’s example of China? Now, there’s a perfect example of what the Obama administration, the FCC, the FTC and other political powers that be are aiming for.

China’s power over the Internet isn’t about protecting its people during wartime. China holds an iron grip over what its people can view and do online every day. The Chinese government maintains a blacklist of sites the Chinese people are simply not allowed to view. These include porn sites, but also any sites containing criticism of the government or promotion of ideas the government doesn’t favor. More recently, they’ve created another list—of governmentapproved sites.

Residents of China who attempt to access the ‘Net are routed through “The Great Firewall of China,” which leads to maddening delays and slow, slow speeds. Not to mention that it gives the central government a record of who’s doing what online. Oh, it really does know who—because there is little online anonymity in China. Every news site user, for instance, is known by his or her real identity. (And the U.S. is already aiming to impose that control, as well. Here it’s called the National Strategy for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace, or NSTIC.)

China has at times exercised its power to kill portions of the Internet. During anti-government riots in 2009, it shut down all Internet access to the vast autonomous Xinjiang region— about 1/6th of the Chinese landmass. At other times, Google, You Tube, and Twitter have all been struck by the Chinese government ax.

Is that what we want here? Would you trade liberty, free enterprise, and free speech for a phony promise of “safety”? Granted, Lieberman’s bill is couched in terms of emergencies. Nobody is saying—yet—that the federal government will gain a permanent tyranny over Internet content. But as President Lyndon Johnson said (and he was a man who knew), “You do not examine legislation in the light of the benefits it will convey if properly administered, but in the light of the wrongs it would do and the harms it would cause if improperly administered.”

Any government that tries to control the Internet may succeed in a limited way in the short run. In the long run, it will lose credibility, money (as sites move offshore), and the trust of its people. For further info and discussion, please visit the entry on this topic at my blog:(http://www.backwoodshome.com/blogs/ClaireWolfe/2010/06/25/canthey-really-put-a-kill-switch-on-the-internet/).

About Author

Claire Wolfe

Claire Wolfe is a libertarian author and columnist. Some of Wolfe's favored topics are gulching or homesteading, firearms, homeschooling, open source technology, and opposition to national ID and the surveillance state or nanny state.

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