Could Egypt Happen Here? Obama’s Internet “Kill Switch”

Egypt pulled the plug on the Internet. A Senate bill would give Obama the power to do the same–or something like it.

Could Egypt Happen Here? Obama’s Internet “Kill Switch”
Egypt unrest in Cairo


First it was Facebook. Then it was Twitter. Now, in the face of massive protests in the streets of Cairo and throughout the country, Egypt has pulled the plug on the entire Internet for its citizens. As this chart from Arbor networks shows, Internet traffic mounted steadily in Egypt steadily over several days, then suddenly and precipitously dropped to nil at 5:20 PM EST yesterday.

The U.S. has condemned the move–in a tweet, no less.

Such a flagrant violation of communications–possible only in the less free corners of the world, right? But since last summer, when a Senate bill was introduced by Joe Lieberman, the U.S. has been considering an Internet “kill switch” of its own. Full text of the bill, “Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset,” can be found here. “For all of its ‘user-friendly’ allure, the Internet can also be a
dangerous place with electronic pipelines that run directly into
everything from our personal bank accounts to key infrastructure to
government and industrial secrets,” Lieberman said in June.

As recently as three days ago, CNET reported on a “renewed push” to implement the bill. Plenty of people criticized the first version of the bill, but the latest version has raised even more red flags. The revision bans judicial review over executive decrees. “The country we’re seeking to protect is a country that respects the
right of any individual to have their day in court,” Steve DelBianco of the NetChoice coalition told CNET. “Yet this
bill would deny that day in court to the owner of infrastructure.”

Now, the purpose of the bill is not, of course, to allow the president to undermine the freedom of speech, or to limit the ability of people to protest. The bill (which doesn’t use the term “kill switch” itself) is in the name of cybersecurity, and allows the president to declare a state of national cyberemergency. The legislation calls for the establishment of a “list of systems or assets that constitute critical infrastructure.” Homeland Security would only add systems to the list if 1) disruption of the system could cause “severe economic consequences,” 2) the system is “a component of the national information infrastructure,” and 3) the “national information infrastructure is essential to the reliable
operation of the system.”


It’s a bill that has worried proponents of free business more than proponents of a free society., for instance, calls the measure a “kill switch for capitalism.”

Few people are likely lighting fires to police vans in Egypt to protest a threat to corporations’ bottom lines. For some of the best live coverage of events as they unfold in Egypt, check out this stream at Al Jazeera English.

Read more of our coverage on the protests in Egypt.

[Top image: Al Jazeera English]


About the author

David Zax is a contributing writer for Fast Company. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Smithsonian, Slate, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal.