U.S. "Kill switch": The Ripple Effect

By: Alex Fayette on 24 June 2010
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The controversial new bill proposal by Senator Lieberman, Senator Carper, and Senator Collins for a US “Presidential Internet Kill Switch” is playing on cyber threats to ask for a policy with grossly unpredictable consequences.

The “Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset Act of 2010” or “PCNAA” is an amendment to the Homeland Security Act of 2002, and is supposed to address the growing threat of cyber attacks against the US. The most troubling part of the bill is Section 249 entitled “National Cyber Emergencies”. It is within this section that the President would be authorized to force ISPs to enact emergency policies to cut off or disrupt the flow of data in the US. While it is clear that protecting the American piece of the global network is a top concern, the effect of this policy, both directly and indirectly, on open Internet access in other parts of the world has been mostly ignored.

The direct consequences of the bill are the most obvious, and are also the concerns that seem to be getting addressed by alert Internet activists and scholars. Fear of abuse of this power, in order to censor content without much oversight from other governmental branches, is a top concern. Internet users worldwide should be worried even more since Senator Lieberman broadcasted (see clip here) that a convincing factor for creating this bill was that because China has a “kill switch policy”, the US should too.

The Internet should not take us back to a Cold War state of détente. When the more “open” nations try to match “closed” nations’ policies, the global open access to the Internet is bound to suffer.

Another legitimate, direct concern is the prospect of this system malfunctioning. Even simpler things like anti-spam filters make plenty of mistakes (see the Twitter #Flotilla blockage ), but a complex system like an ISP “kill switch” could cause a great deal of global trouble if it was accidently activated.

The far graver concern from this bill could be a so-far unaddressed, indirect consequence, the ripple effect.

As it still stands, the United States serves as a major role model for other nations when it comes to the Internet. This doesn’t mean that America has the best policies, but merely that when US adopts a new Internet law, the world most definitely listens. Frequently, other nations look at the success and prosperity that the Internet has brought to the US and emulate parts of the policies in their own countries. While sometimes this is very beneficial to the world community, adoption of kill switch policies by other nations is a severe threat to the efforts trying to make the Internet more open.

Only a few nations currently have kill switch policies in place as far as the public is aware, but if the US adopted one, a ripple of similar policies could very possibly spread across the globe. More nations with this system would lead to more chances of abuse or malfunction. All of that can only lead to a less open Internet, which is ultimately in no one’s best interest.

This ripple effect has seemingly been ignored so far in the discussion of this proposed bill. While yes, American lawmakers are putting “America first”, it is naïve in this digital era to ignore the responsibilities that the US has to the rest of the world. Like an older brother, the US must be a positive role model for those nations who look to its laws and policies and try to emulate them in certain ways.

The Internet can be a hazardous place with all of the growing threats of botnet attacks and alike, but just like it is dangerous to trample free speech in order to stamp out inappropriate materials, it is also a danger to threaten a more open internet for the sake cyber security.