Should the President have an Internet Kill Switch?

A new bill in the Senate proposes to give the president the authority to shut down the internet in the event of an emergency. A kill switch, essentially. It will be interesting to see the debate on this, particularly from the standpoint of how the government views its role with regard to the network infrastructure of the country.

It is easy to easy to see why the pentagon would want a power like this. The internet is a vector by which enemies could digitally travel to and attack the country, but unlike airports, seaports, and border crossings, there is no way to enforce the border. It doesn’t even have to be international; domestic crime groups could attack our nuclear power plants, wall street, or any number of institutions and, right now, there is no way to pull up a paddy wagon and cordon off the area, so to speak. The people pushing this bill clearly see an “internet kill switch” as one way to provide the digital equivalent of shutting down a port, grounding airplanes, or enforcing a curfew.

The problem as I see it is that a kill switch is a rather brute way to respond the risk, and it comes with collateral costs both to our liberty but also to public safety.

From the liberty standpoint, at what point should the government be allowed to instruct citizens to stop communicating? That’s essentially what the internet boils down to – communication – so it isn’t an unfair question, even if the communication is done via a federally funded infrastructure. Some countries have already begun initial discussions about whether internet access should be considered a fundamental human right, and, to the extent that it is, perhaps the rights of the people outweigh the government’s need to feel secure.

I think a much stronger argument can be made against the bill from the standpoint of safety. The internet so intertwines our businesses today that it is impossible to predict what the effects of a national shutdown would be. Would surgical teams suddenly lose the ability to control their robotic instruments mid-surgery? Would hydropower plants suddenly lose their links to the computers that control them? Would police departments be unable to coordinate investigations? While not everything depends on the internet, I think an analogy to shutting down the electrical grid is in the right direction.

We need a way to protect our electronic infrastructure, and a new government department that manages it would probably be a good thing to have around (also a new division of the military). But instead of a kill switch, perhaps a more targeted approach could be taken. Identify risk areas of our current infrastructure and work to build better perimeters around those, or possibly localized kill switches: around just the wall street trading network, for example, or around just the a nuclear power plant’s network.

With a more targeted approach, the president could always still call up the handfull of big telecommunications companies and say “pull the plug,” but it would be an off-the-books, controversial move instead of a gun ready and waiting to be drawn from the holster. And with a move that big, maybe that’s the way it should be.