By Jim Harper
Experienced debaters know that the framing of an issue often determines the outcome of the contest. Always watch the slant of the ground that debaters stand on.
The Internet kill-switch debate is instructive. Last week, Senators Lieberman (I-CT), Collins (R-ME) and Carper (D-DE) introduced a newly modified bill that seeks to give the government authority to seize power over the Internet or parts of it. The old version was widely panned.
In a statement about the new bill, they denied that it should be called a “kill switch,” of course--that language isn't good for their cause after Egypt's ousted dictator Hosni Mubarak illustrated what such power means.
They also inserted a section called the "Internet Freedom Act." It's George Orwell with a clown nose, a comically ham-handed attempt to make it seem like the bill is not a government power-grab.
But they also said this: “The emergency measures in our bill apply in a precise and targeted way only to our most critical infrastructure.”
Accordingly, much of the reportage and commentary in this piece by Declan McCullagh explores whether the powers are indeed precisely targeted.
These are important and substantive points, right? Well, only if you've already conceded some more important ones, such as:
1) What authority does the government have to seize, or plan to seize, private assets? Such authority would be highly debatable under any of the constitutional powers kill-switchers might claim. Indeed, the constitution protects against, or at least severely limits, takings of private property in the Fifth Amendment.
2) Would it be a good idea to have the government seize control of the Internet, or parts of it, under some emergency situation? A government attack on our private communications infrastructure would almost certainly undercut the reliability and security of our networks, computers and data.
The proponents of the Internet kill-switch have not met their burden on either of these fundamental points. Thus, the question of tailoring is irrelevant.
I managed to get in a word to this effect in the story linked above. “How does this make cybersecurity better? They have no answer,” I said. They really don't.
No amount of tailoring can make a bad idea a good one. The Internet kill-switch debate is not about the precision or care with which such a policy might be designed or implemented. It's about the galling claim on the part of Senators Lieberman, Collins and Carper that the U.S. government can seize private assets at will or whim.