Imagine if the government had the power to disconnect an entire country from its Internet service.  Actually, we don’t have to imagine it; we have seen it happen in the past week, as the Mubarak regime in Egypt tried in vain to keep protesters from organizing on Twitter, Facebook, and other social networking platforms.  In a display of exquisitely bad timing, two US Senators will reintroduce a bill that would put the same power in the hands of the executive branch after the practical demonstration of how useful — and ultimately useless — it is for squelching dissent:

The news of Egypt’s crackdown on Web access is raising new concerns over a comprehensive cybersecurity bill that critics claim gives the president a “kill switch” for the Internet.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) has recently indicated she plan to re-introduce the bipartisan legislation she crafted last year with Senate Homeland Security Committee chairman Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), which passed the Senate Homeland Security Committee last year only to get mired in a standoff with Senate Commerce Committee members over which panel should have oversight of civilian cybersecurity.

The bill first got introduced in the spring of 2009, when Democrats had overwhelming majorities in Congress.  Needless to say, it didn’t fare well, mainly because people understood it to be operationally the same as what Mubarak tried last week.  It’s not quite the same thing, or at least it wasn’t when Jay Rockefeller introduced it.  The bill authorized the government to take federal servers off-line in case of cyberattack, which would make government data inaccessible, which should raise eyebrows.  The earlier bill also had this disturbing provision:

SEC. 14. PUBLIC–PRIVATE CLEARINGHOUSE.

(a) DESIGNATION.—The Department of Commerce shall serve as the clearinghouse of cybersecurity threat and vulnerability information to Federal government and private sector owned critical infrastructure information systems and networks.

(b) FUNCTIONS.—The Secretary of Commerce—

(1) shall have access to all relevant data concerning such networks without regard to any provision of law, regulation, rule, or policy restricting such access; …

Without regard to any provision of law?  This strips the owners of private networks of their Fourth Amendment rights, simply by declaring such systems and networks “critical infrastructure.”  If this survives in the Collins-Lieberman bill, that’s a larger practical concern than a total Internet shutdown. But that also could mean that the private networks fall under the authority for shutdown, as Berin Szoka of TechFreedom argues:

“This incident also demonstrates a more subtle point: Maintaining the rule of law in times of crisis demands judicial review for the president’s decision to designate something a ‘critical asset’ subject to government diktat in the name of protecting ‘cybersecurity.’ ”

Collins has bristled at that characterization, pointing out that the White House has indicated they already have the authority to shut down portions of the private-sector Web in the event of a national security emergency under a little-used provision of the Communications Act passed one month after the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor.

At any rate, the reintroduction of the bill at this point almost ensures its demise.  If it couldn’t pass during a Congress with Democratic supermajorities, it won’t pass in a split Congress, especially not after Mubarak’s pointed demonstration of the technique.  (via Instapundit)