Three senators set to reintroduce a cybersecurity bill some believe will give the president power to shut down the Internet have denounced the actions of Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak to deny people access to the Web there.
Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee chairman Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Sens. Susan Collins (R-Me.) and Tom Carper (D-Del.) on Wednesday issued a statement criticizing Mubarak's order to state-owned Internet service providers to cut off service in an effort to quell an uprising there.
"The steps the Mubarak government took last week to shut down Internet communications in Egypt were, and are, totally wrong," the senators said. "His actions were clearly designed to limit internal criticisms of his government."
On the contrary, they said, the legislation the three are preparing to re-introduce to Congress that gives the president power to cut off access to critical infrastructure in the U.S. in the event of a cyber-emergency or attack has a different aim. Moreover, it does not empower the president to order ISPs in the United States, which are largely publicly owned, to cut off access to the Web.
"Nothing could be further from the truth," the senators said. "We would never sign on to legislation that authorized the President, or anyone else, to shut down the Internet. Emergency or no, the exercise of such broad authority would be an affront to our Constitution."
Last June the three senators introduced a larger cybersecurity bill, "Protecting Cyberspace as National Asset Act of 2010," or S. 348, which included the cyber-emergency shutdown measure. The bill made it past the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee. They are readying a new version for introduction soon, but no definite timeline has been announced.
The senators claim the president actually has more power now, authorized by the Communications Act of 1934, to take action similar to what's been done in Egypt because it allows the president to take over or shut down wire and radio communications providers in the event of a threat or war.
Calling that law "a crude sledgehammer built for another time and technology," the senators claim their bill will ensure that power won't be applied to the Internet because it allows the president to identify only critical control systems -- i.e., telecommunications networks, the electric grid, financial systems, and the like -- and order emergency measures for them against an event that might destroy or severely disrupt them.
The president also would have to notify Congress first before taking action by "the least disruptive means feasible," and the measures he takes cannot go beyond 120 days without congressional approval, the senators said.
"Even though experts question whether anyone can technically 'shut down' the Internet in the United States, we will ensure that any legislation that moves in this Congress contains explicit language prohibiting the President from doing what President Mubarak did," they said.