Commentary: The Internet 'kill switch' and other myths

The (Raleigh) News & ObserverFebruary 22, 2011 

Speaking of Internet hoaxes and urban myths that trouble the sleep of people who keep copious amounts of weapons, Vienna sausages and saltines in their basements, here's another:

Reader Bill Lynch didn't fall for the alarmist e-mail message someone sent to him, but he forwarded it to me to investigate - a wise move considering that I vowed last week to dedicate the rest of my life (or the next 15 minutes) to debunking Internet rumors.

This myth is particularly fitting for Presidents Day because it involves President Barack Obama's alleged quest to - get this - acquire a "kill switch" that would allow him to shut down everyone's Internet access. That means, they contend, that the president could arbitrarily deprive us of important news recently uncovered about his birth in Indonesia, or the fact that he is really Osama bin Laden's nephew, or that he - EGADS! - drinks milk straight from the carton.

I put my crack team of investigators on the case, and here's what they discovered: The Internet kill switch is not totally a hoax, though it's not now a reality either.

There is indeed a law that allows the president the ability to restrict means of electronic communications. It is called the Communications Act of 1934, and it gives the president authority to shut down wire services "if there is a state or threat of war." That's right: 1934.

A new, bipartisan-sponsored bill called the Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset Act of 2010 seeks to give the president special authority in the event that a cyber-security emergency is sufficiently complicated. Though it's unclear exactly what that authority would be.

Mark Ishman, a Raleigh lawyer and an expert on Internet law, said, "Officially there's no Internet kill switch in America.

"It's very unlikely for a bill like that to pass here."

He said such a bill "would not, in my opinion, be a good idea. We all saw what happened in Egypt" - where the government reportedly shut down the Internet, which helped galvanize protesters.

"As soon as you suppress it, you have problems. It completely devastated their economy."

The main problem with the PCNAA bill is that, even after reading it, it's still hard to tell exactly what it does and when it could be implemented.

The mere suggestion of entrusting a president with the power to call Google and say "shut that sucka down" is understandably terrifying. The most apolitical person in Peoria, Ill., would suddenly view himself as a political prisoner because he was denied access to his favorite titillating websites.

We need to be vigilant about ceding complete control to any president.

After all, just a few years ago, who among us ever thought Americans would have to worry about eavesdropping, secret CIA prisons and domestic spying by our government?

We should be equally terrified, though, that enemies of the state could cause a nationwide panic by gaining access to the Internet and disseminating misinformation - like, say, that the president is going to shut down the Internet.

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