The Public Eye with Eric Chabrow

Does Bill Give President OK to Shutter Net? Nonsense

Concerns Voiced Over Lieberman-Collins-Carper Bill
Does Bill Give President OK to Shutter Net? Nonsense

Coverage of the Lieberman-Collins-Carper cybersecurity legislation has focused mostly on the actions the president could take if he declares a national cyber emergency, with alarmist headlines such as:

    Internet 'Kill Switch' Proposed For President
    Joe Lieberman's Cybersecurity Bill - A Land Grab?
    Government Pushing to Control Internet
    Senate Bill Gives Obama, Feds Control Of Internet

Would the legislation, known as the Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset Act of 2010, give the president the right to shutter the Internet? Perhaps, but not really. Does the bill cede control of the Internet, the so-called land grab, to the federal government? Absolutely not.

The legislation gives the president authority to order the owners of the most critical information infrastructure - such as the electric and telecommunications grids and transportation networks - to take steps in event of a declared cyber emergency to safeguard these key IT systems. But the legislation puts time limits on how long an emergency can last - 30 days with a possible 30-day extension - and involves the owners of those networks in helping define what steps should take place in the event of an emergency.

Lieberman, interviewed on CNN, responded to the assertions that the bill would give the president the kill switch and grant him absolute power to shut down freedom of speech.:

"No way, and total misinformation. I don't know whether people are intentionally pedaling misinformation. Here is the fact. Cyber war is going on in some sense right now. Our civilian infrastructure, the Internet that runs the electric grid, the telecommunications grid, transportation, all the rest is constantly being probed by nation states, by some terrorist groups, by organized criminal gangs.
"And we need this capacity in a time of war. We need the capacity for the president to say, Internet service provider, we've got to disconnect the American Internet from all traffic coming in from another foreign country, or we've got to put a patch on this part of it.
"The president will never take over - the government should never take over the Internet. Listen, we've consulted, Senator Collins and I, who are proposing this bill, with civil liberties and privacy experts. This is a matter of national security. A cyber attack on America can do as much or more damage today by incapacitating our banks, our communications, our finance, our transportation, as a conventional war attack."

Lieberman's final quote on the subject attracted some unwanted attention:

"Right now, China, the government, can disconnect parts of its Internet in a case of war. We need to have that here, too.

That comment brought a biting observation (see last half-minute of clip) from satirist John Stewart on The Daily Show:

"Oh, tell me, he's worried about the potential government overreach and government censorship, but if China says it's OK ..."

But I digress.

What's at issue here is the most fundamental aspect of information security: trust. Those who truly believe the bill would give the president the power to seize control of the Internet either haven't read the bill or interpret its language as giving the commander in chief an excuse to do so. Have presidents misinterpreted and misused laws in the past? Yes. But the spirit of the Lieberman-Collins-Carper bill is to limit presidential authority while protecting the vital information and communications networks that our economy and our national safety rely on.

For those chief information officers and chief information security officers,'s core audience, the so-called kill-switch provisions are a sideshow; what's more important to them are the bill's requirements to move to continuous monitoring of IT systems and how new bureaucracies in the White House and Homeland Security would influence the way cybersecurity is governed in the federal government.

But the fate of the legislation may rest on the rhetoric of others who obscure reality.

About the Author

Eric Chabrow

Eric Chabrow

Retired Executive Editor, GovInfoSecurity

Chabrow, who retired at the end of 2017, hosted and produced the semi-weekly podcast ISMG Security Report and oversaw ISMG's GovInfoSecurity and InfoRiskToday. He's a veteran multimedia journalist who has covered information technology, government and business.

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