The Internet Kill-Switch Debate

by on February 19, 2011 · 8 comments

Experienced debaters know that the framing of an issue often determines the outcome of the contest. Always watch the slant of the ground that debaters stand on.

The Internet kill-switch debate is instructive. Last week, Senators Lieberman (I-CT), Collins (R-ME) and Carper (D-DE) introduced a newly modified bill that seeks to give the government authority to seize power over the Internet or parts of it. The old version was widely panned.

In a statement about the new bill, they denied that it should be called a “kill switch,” of course—that language isn’t good for their cause after Egypt’s ousted dictator Hosni Mubarak illustrated what such power means. They also inserted a section called the “Internet Freedom Act.” It’s George Orwell with a clown nose, a comically ham-handed attempt to make it seem like the bill is not a government power-grab.

But they also said this: “The emergency measures in our bill apply in a precise and targeted way only to our most critical infrastructure.”

Accordingly, much of the reportage and commentary in this piece by Declan McCullagh explores whether the powers are indeed precisely targeted.

These are important and substantive points, right? Well, only if you’ve already conceded some more important ones, such as:

1) What authority does the government have to seize, or plan to seize, private assets? Such authority would be highly debatable under any of the constitutional powers kill-switchers might claim. Indeed, the constitution protects against, or at least severely limits, takings of private property in the Fifth Amendment.


2) Would it be a good idea to have the government seize control of the Internet, or parts of it, under some emergency situation? A government attack on our private communications infrastructure would almost certainly undercut the reliability and security of our networks, computers, and data.

The proponents of the Internet kill-switch have not met their burden on either of these fundamental points. Thus, the question of tailoring is irrelevant.

I managed to get in a word to this effect in the story linked above. “How does this make cybersecurity better? They have no answer,” I said. They really don’t.

No amount of tailoring can make a bad idea a good one. The Internet kill-switch debate is not about the precision or care with which such a policy might be designed or implemented. It’s about the galling claim on the part of Senators Lieberman, Collins, and Carper that the U.S. government can seize private assets at will or whim.

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  • Judah Richardson

    The Kill-Switch legislation is without a doubt the most dangerous set of laws considered in recent history. It must be stopped.

  • celebs4truth

    What I find fascinating is how this tyrannical government can stand there (Billary) and shout freedom of speech, demonizing the Egyptian gov for turning off the internet while they quietly try to get the authority to kill ours whenever they want! LMAO!

  • Jerry Brito

    Jim, Couldn’t one read 47 U.S.C. 606 to say that the president already has the power to flip a switch on the internet?

  • cordblomquist

    Jerry’s question here is really important. Does the Internet kill-switch bill make the law worse, or does it actually provide some sort of procedure for an existing power held by the President? Maybe we shouldn’t be asking if this bill goes to far, but rather if it goes far enough. That is, if it is in fact limiting the powers outlines in the statute that Jerry references above. I’ll leave it to you lawyers to figure that out.

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