January 28 2011
Regulating Internet provider's network management isn't enough for big government. Centralized control over the U.S. Internet is what big government is really after. Following the FCC power grab over broadband network management, some Senators are now trying to push for an "Internet kill switch."
Jim Harper explains on the Cato blog how the recent Egyptian attack on the country's Internet providers is relevant for America. The Egyptian government appears to have ordered Internet providers within its jurisdiction to shut off all international connections to the Internet in response to civil unrest-a bad faith move at controlling the Internet that is not necessarily confined to governments outside the United States.
The U.S. government has proposed both directly and indirectly to centralize control over U.S. Internet service providers. C|Net's Declan McCullagh reports that an "Internet kill switch" proposal championed by by Sens. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) will be reintroduced in the new Congress very soon.
The idea is to give "kill switch" authority to the government for use in responding to some kind of "cyberemergency." We see here that a government with use "kill switch" power will use it when the "emergency" is a challenge to its authority. When done in good faith, flipping an Internet "kill switch" would be stupid and self-destructive, tantamount to an auto-immune reaction that compounds the damage from a cybersecurity incident. The more likely use of "kill switch" authority would be bad faith, as the Egyptian government illustrates, to suppress speech and assembly rights.
In the person of the Federal Communications Commission, the U.S. government has also proposed to bring Internet service providers under a regulatory umbrella that it could then use for censorship or protest suppression in the future. On the TechLiberationFront blog, Larry Downes has recently completed a five-part analysis of the government's regulatory plan (1, 2,3, 4, 5). The intention of its proponents is in no way to give the government this kind of authority, but government power is not always used as intended, and there is plenty of scholarship to show that government agencies use their power to achieve goals that are non-statutory and even unconstitutional.
The power of social media to overthrow oppressive regimes was most recently demonstrated in Tunisia. Egypt shut off its internet access when the government became aware of social unrest that might lead to a similar revolution. An "Internet kill switch" is one way for big government to limit the people's ability to discipline their government through information-sharing and organizing. It's not just the Internet that is threatened by government regulation, it's the people's power to defend their freedom against over-intrusive government.