Mike Curtiss (25 Nov 2010)
"Should Obama's 'internet kill switch' power be curbed?"

 
Should Obama's 'internet kill switch' power be curbed?
BBC News, Washington ^ | 24 November 2010 | Daniel Nasaw 

Under a World War II-era law, the US president appears to have authority to disconnect computer systems and servers from the internet in the event of a national emergency. But the next US Congress is poised to change that.

The law was passed in 1942. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour had provoked fear of a foreign invasion on US soil, and Congress responded by giving President Franklin Roosevelt broad power to commandeer or shutter telephone and telegraph networks.

Nearly 70 years later, telegraph networks have disappeared, and the telephone is only one of many means of communication.

But although the 1942 law makes no mention of the internet - merely of "any facility or station for wire communication" - the Obama administration in June told Congress it would cite it in an emergency.

It has not been tested in court, but experts say section 706(d) of the Communications Act could give the president wide-ranging authority to shut down key computer systems.

With typical Washington hyperbole, the law has become known as the presidential "internet kill switch".

'Clear rules needed'

The next US Congress will be under pressure to strengthen the nation's cyber defences, and a spectrum of security analysts, internet freedom advocates and senators say lawmakers must update those emergency war powers to limit or at the very least more clearly define the president's authority.

"The time is ripe for some articulation of this authority so we don't have presidents going off into the wild, but actually have a set of pretty clear rules," said Paul Rosenzweig, a former homeland security official under President George W Bush, now a fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation.