License to kill

Proposed legislation for Internet 'kill switch' smacks of autocracy

We've seen it throughout history -- whenever an oppressive government wants to further clench its fist around its people and squelch dissent, it tries to muzzle public information.

Witness the upheaval in Egypt. That country's last Internet service provider shut down this week in response to the government mandate to end all Net access. It finally got restored much later in the week, when protests showed no signs of abating.

But with one totalitarian swipe, the Egyptian government had electronically marooned a quarter of its population of 80-plus-million.

Similar actions were tried in Syria, where the popular social networking site Facebook is officially banned.

Do those sound like countries you'd want to live in -- in an era when Internet access is a part of our lives almost as organic as breathing air?

Of course you wouldn't.

But some misguided members of Congress are kind of hoping you would .

Sens. Joe Lieberman and Susan Collins are co-sponsoring a bill officially called the Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset Act of 2010. Other permutations of it are floating around Congress, too. But what most people are calling it is a lot more truthful and to-the-point: the Kill Switch Bill.

This bill would give the government the power to take control of online communication systems in case of a national emergency. If some group of cyber-crazies tried to sabotage the Internet, the government under this bill could step in and shut it down to prevent further damage.

"This is kind of a weird tautology," said PCMag contributing editor John C. Dvorak. "The country can't function without the Net, so we need to secure it, which includes having the ability to shut it down. But with the Net down, how can the country function?"

Indeed. What good would it really do? Say someone wanted to electronically empty everyone's bank accounts, as Dvorak posited in a recent column. The actual theft would take about, oh, a millisecond. Talk about closing the barn door after the horse escapes.

Can this even be constitutional?

The real danger is enabling such a far-reaching, autocratic power within our government. We don't need a "road closed" sign on such an important avenue of free speech as the Internet.

Our system of laws is supposed to enhance our rights, not erode them. Giving our government a "kill switch" for the Internet -- as abundantly proved in Egypt -- is a wretched idea.

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