Faced with impending riots, in late January the Egyptian government shut off the Internet. By ordering Egyptian-based Internet service providers to turn off their “Border Gate Protocol” (BGP) announcements, the government effectively flicked a “kill switch” that normally allows one Internet company’s network to route data to another. The result: Egypt’s Internet went dark and unrecognized by the rest of the world’s networks.
Through the almost universal condemnation by the rest of the world, there are some important lessons from Egypt. First, the U.S. should avoid any attempt to mirror Egypt’s actions. Yet, Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), Tom Carper (D-DE), and Susan Collins (R-ME) have jointly proposed a cybersecurity bill that contains a “kill-switch” for the Internet. The legislation, as introduced last year, certainly does not hand the same power to the President of the United States as the power held by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, yet the bill is not benign.
The legislation would allow the president to shut down “covered critical infrastructure” when an attacker “disrupts, attempts to disrupt, or poses a significant risk of disruption to the operation.” The only thing worse than handing the president such authority with vague restrictions is that when the government would deem a private company’s infrastructure “critical,” the final decision is not subject to judicial review. This effectively hands power to a new cybersecurity czar who could deem private sector Internet networks, cloud-based email systems, content delivery networks (CDNs), and more under the government’s “kill switch” control.
Any form of “kill switch” for the Internet is an unnecessary policy that will only lead to tyrannical use – if any use at all. ISPs have incredibly elaborate security and anti-virus mechanisms in place. They ward off thousands of attacks on our Internet networks every week. Perhaps the federal government should focus on shoring up its own cybersecurity efforts before taking administrative hold of others.
The second takeaway is that only government has the tyrannical ability to completely shut off the Internet. Yet, almost bafflingly, some have tried to shift the blame from an authoritarian government to private companies. Tim Karr, of the radical organization Free Press, had this to say:
The open Internet's role in popular uprising is now undisputed. Look no further than Egypt, where the Mubarak regime shut down Internet and cell phone communications — a troubling predictor of the fierce crackdown that followed.
What's even more troubling is news that one American company is aiding Egypt's harsh response through sales of technology that makes this repression possible.
There is nothing “more troubling” than that a government had enough power to turn the Internet off. Those (largely active proponents of “Net Neutrality”) that paint Internet service providers and network equipment manufacturers as “gatekeepers” to the Internet continue to claim that companies seize every opportunity to restrict the websites you visit and the content you share. Yet, people like Free Press’s Tim Karr fail to differentiate between the power of the government and the power of companies. I’ve said it before: Only government can seal off portions of the Internet outright. Businesses – which are guided by consumer demand – cannot.