The Internet Kill Switch

There are some ideas about technology that are simply bad thinking. Sen. Rockefeller's proposal to give the president an Internet Kill Switch is monumentally wrong headed.

"To retain respect for sausages and laws, one must not watch them in the making."

-- Usually attributed to Otto von Bismarck

A bill, currently in draft, which is sponsored by Sen. John Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, and Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), is a great example of how watching political sausage making will cause you to lose all respect for those cranking the handle.

The nascent bill proposes that the president be given what will be, in effect, the power to shut down the Internet. No, I am not kidding. At first I thought this was some kind of elaborate April Fool's joke (a staff working draft of the bill is dated April 1), but then I read John Fontana's article here in Network World and realized these people are serious!

This bill is, admittedly, a working draft, so to some greater or lesser extent it is "flying a kite". The bill has a lot more hurdles and scrutiny to face before it gets near to becoming law. That said, the fact that anyone would put forward such a bill is just marginally this side of insane.

Here's the really contentious things the bill proposes: In Section 18, (4) it says the president "may declare a cybersecurity emergency and order the limitation or shutdown of Internet traffic to and from any compromised Federal government or United States critical infrastructure information system or network". Section 18, (6) adds, the president "may order the disconnection of any Federal government or United States critical infrastructure information systems or networks in the interest of national security".

In other words, the bill gives the president an Internet Kill Switch to go along with his Nuclear-Destroy-the-World Button.

To say that the Internet Kill Switch is a bad idea is only scratching the surface of how wrongheaded the proposal is. The more rabid right wingers out there might argue that the idea is rational because preventing the enemy from communicating and protecting our vulnerabilities are two keys to self defense. That argument is, as a famous philosopher once said, "a load of dingoes kidneys."

First, we have to ask if such a thing as an Internet Kill Switch is even possible. The Internet is the biggest distributed communications system mankind has ever created, and to misquote John Gilmore's famous assertion: "The Net interprets control as damage and routes around it." Here's the thing: the 'Net is too big and too complex to be shut down in any meaningful way, even if the extent of the disconnection was just limited to federal connections.

And there in lies the second concern: We have to be wary of what constitutes "critical infrastructure". Would this just be limited to governmental Internet connections, or would it extend, as Rockefeller has suggested, to online services "of interest" to the government such as private sector infrastructure that could include banking, utilities, air/rail/auto traffic control and telecommunications? If the latter was the case surely this would require an unheard of level of federal oversight, huge expense for both the government and business, and mandated standards beyond the wildest dreams of any hard core bureaucrat.

Third, we have to consider whether an Internet Kill Switch is actually necessary. We haven't given the president the authority to shut down the telephone and cell phone systems which were most definitely of far more value to the 9-11 terrorists than the Internet was, so why single out the Internet? If this bill is serious then it needs to address the bigger communications picture. And that can't be done.

Finally, we have to consider what giving the government such authority would really mean. For example, we know from experience that you give the feds an inch and they'll put you under surveillance.

This bill and the whole idea of an Internet Kill Switch need to die a quiet death. You don't want to see this particular sausage even contemplated, let alone made.

Gibbs has yet to make sausages in Ventura, Calif. Your recipes to backspin@gibbs.com.

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