Sponsors of legislation that would give the president the authority to shut down the Internet during a national emergency are coming out to defend their bill in the face of criticism that the bill is a threat to free speech.
“We will ensure that any legislation that moves in this Congress contains explicit language prohibiting the President from doing what President Mubarak did,” Independent Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, Democratic Senator Tom Carper of Delaware, and Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine said in a statement released Tuesday.
However, the “protections” listed in the statement merely clarified that the president would be forced to notify Congress and would require congressional approval to extend the action longer than 120 days.
The statement furthermore said that the legislation would require that there be an ongoing or imminent attack with “national or regional catastrophic effects.”
The definition of such an event includes, the statement said, “among other things, ‘a mass casualty event which includes an extraordinary number of fatalities’ and ‘mass evacuations with a prolonged absence.’”
The statement questioned the feasibility of actually shutting down American Internet access and claimed that the president currently has “broad and ambiguous” powers over the Internet under an antiquated 1934 law.
On Wednesday the organization Free Press responded, saying, “The bill as written offers a vague definition of what constitutes an emergency, and fails to create effective checks and balances.”
“The senators issued a statement on Tuesday offering assurances that they do not seek to create a ‘kill switch’ over the Internet,” said the organization. “Whatever the intentions, Free Press believes the reportedly broad, ambiguous language of the bill and its lack of safeguards for individual freedoms are deeply troubling.”
Timothy Karr of Free Press said that “their promises that the bill won’t give the president ‘kill-switch’ powers aren’t very reassuring. The devil is always in the details.”
Karr said that the mere notification required by the president is troubling and expressed concern that “the president could declare an emergency and shut down digital communications.”