When protests in Egypt began spiraling out of control, fueled and coordinated in part by social media use, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak shut down Internet communications. While this did little to stem the increasing outrage (possibly spurring the disenchanted to further protests), it raises the issue of when and if U.S. leadership could pull the plug on domestic Internet use.
To that point, the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee issued a statement about its pending cybersecurity legislation and how rather than expanding the Executive Office’s power to deny Internet access to U.S. citizens, it restricts it to all but the most dire circumstances.
Under current law, in a cyber attack, the President has broad and ambiguous authorities. The Communications Act of 1934 empowers the President to take over or shut down wire and radio communications providers. The new legislation provides protections restricting that broad authority.
Here are some key points from the bill:
– Emergency measures apply only to the most critical infrastructure to protect it from destruction;
– The President can only use his/her emergency authorities “if there is an ongoing or imminent” attack that would “cause national or regional catastrophic effects,” that is, a mass casualty event and/or mass long-term evacuations;
– Presidential measures must be “the least disruptive means feasible;”
– The President must notify Congress, and the emergency measures cannot be continued beyond 120 days without congressional approval; and
– The legislation forbids action that would violate the First Amendment and prohibits limiting Internet traffic, e-mails, and other forms of communication, “unless no other action would prevent a regional or national catastrophe.”
While this language is certainly better than the carte-blanche shut-it-down authority currently provided under the Communications Act of 1934, a creative Executive Office could still likely find some wiggle room. But this is new territory – cybersecurity legislation won’t be perfected overnight, and fortunately, unlike the current Egyptian system of government, Americans enjoy a (proven) right to remove their president by a peaceful vote every four years.