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Opinion: Could an Egypt-Style Internet Shutdown Happen Here?

Feb 9, 2011 – 5:45 AM
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Matt Kibbe

Special to AOL News
Shortly after thousands of Egyptians flocked to the streets in late January to protest corruption, inflation and the lack of free speech in the country, President Hosni Mubarak responded by shutting down the Internet.

In an instant, Egypt's Internet kill switch virtually cut off Egyptians from communicating with the outside world. According to Egypt's largest mobile network provider, Vodafone Egypt, "under Egyptian legislation the authorities have the right to issue such an order and we are obliged to comply with it."

Mubarak has since turned the Internet back on, but the question remains: Could a government-imposed Internet blackout happen in the United States?

It's possible. Last summer, Sens. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Tom Carper, D-Del., introduced "Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset Act of 2010," which would authorize the creation of a cybersecurity center run by the Department of Homeland Security and a cyberpolicy office in the White House.

The legislation would allow the president to shut off part of or the entire Internet in the name of "cybersecurity." This Internet kill switch is opposed by a wide range of organizations, from the progressive National Lawyers Guild to the more conservative Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms.

It's unclear what will constitute a national cyber emergency, but the legislation states the government's decision to shut down a network "shall not be subject to judicial review."
Even after Egypt's shutdown, Sens. Lieberman and Collins have announced their intentions to reintroduce the Internet kill switch bill this session.

Last week, Lieberman, Collins and Carper issued a joint statement defending the bill, saying, "We would never sign on to legislation that authorized the President, or anyone else, to shut down the Internet," adding that the shutdown authority only applies in "a precise and targeted way only to our most critical infrastructure -- the networks and assets most essential to the functioning of society and the economy -- to ensure they are protected from destruction."

But whether intended or not, it is hard not to view a "kill switch" as a direct threat to democratic dissent and the free flow of information and opinions online. We are, after all, more accustomed to hearing about Internet kill switches in authoritarian regimes such as Egypt, China and Iran.

In recent citizen uprisings in Tunisia and Iran, the government unplugged some Internet Border Gateway Protocols, making it difficult for citizens to organize protests online. China, which has an extensive history of censoring the Internet, has blocked the word "Egypt" from social networking sites.

Chinese Communist Party leaders fear that knowledge of the Egyptian protests may encourage citizens to call for political reforms. In 2009, China shut down the Internet in the Chinese region of Xinjiang for several months after riots began.

After hearing these stories, we should all conclude that giving any government power to shut down even limited parts of the Internet is dangerous. The Internet is supposed to allow citizens to freely exchange thoughts and opinions; it is full of blogs and Twitter feeds exchanging ideas on politics and policy.

My own organization has recently launched FreedomConnect, an online community of political activists that we believe will continue to empower citizens over Beltway insiders both in and out of government.

A kill switch poses a threat to legitimate political debate, not dissimilar from government control of the press. As George Orwell noted in his classic novel "1984," government control over the flow of information is the easiest way to control people.

With more Americans engaging in political discourse online, it's the Lieberman-Collins-Carper bill that deserves the kill switch.

Matt Kibbe is president and CEO of FreedomWorks, a nationwide grassroots organization fighting for lower taxes, less government and freedom, and the author of "Give Us Liberty: A Tea Party Manifesto."

  • Sens. Lieberman, Collins and Carper defended their bill in an op-ed published by AOL News last summer.
  • And security expert Bruce Schneier asked why we would want to terrorize our own people by doing exactly what we don't want our enemies to do.
Filed under: Opinion, Arab World Unrest
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