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Kill Switch

Syria Utilizes “Kill Switch” as Internet Freedom Debate Heats Up

in Africa/Asia/Broadband's Impact/International/Wireless by

WASHINGTON, June 17, 2011 – In the past year, there has been an extensive push for universal access to Internet, seen as the ultimate democratizing tool enabling two-way communication between governors and the governed. But the reality of a ‘digital divide’ leaves the majority of the world’s population without access to the technological infrastructure to support its use. And those who do have access are sometimes more vulnerable to restriction on political basis, as seen in the recent uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa.

Such was the case in Syria on June 3, when the government shut down the country’s Internet network. Although fully restored the following day, the country’s 3G, DSL and dial-up were disconnected the same day massive protests and marches were being organized throughout the country to call for the removal of President Bashar al-Assad and for “Children’s Friday,” to honor children who had died during the uprisings.

An Internet “kill switch” was used earlier this year in Egypt and Libya, as well as in Iran in 2009, but this was the first recognized occurence in Syria, which has been in a period of political unrest for the past several months and seen violent crackdowns on protestors that have killed more than 1,000 people.

In an almost ironic turn, the Syrian Internet shutdown occured just hours before United Nations Special Rapporteur, Frank La Rue, issued a report to the Human Rights Council in Geneva on freedom of expression, claiming that Internet access is a basic human right.

In his report, La Rue said he was concerned about the “emerging trend of timed blocking to prevent users from accessing or disseminating information at key political moments,” and that cutting off Internet access is a violation of Article 19 of the UN’s human rights law.

The report and recommendations focus both on a universal right to access content, that is, a political right to communicate freely via the Internet and on the technical infrastructure that enables the communication. Currently, nearly 80 percent of the world’s population is left wanting in this respect.

“Each State should thus develop a concrete and effective policy…to make the Internet widely available, accessible and affordable to all segments of population,” said La Rue in the report.

Throughout the so-called “Arab Spring,” the Internet has played a crucial role as dissenters have used social media and various sites to organize and mobilize communities and to get the word out to the world, as in many cases, foreign journalists have been restricted. Social media sites like Facebook and YouTube were banned in Syria until February, and although eventually made accessible, have been monitored by government authorities, especially during protests.

Despite the open nature of the Internet’s architecture, the ability of governments and regulators to control and monitor citizens’ access is worrisome for proponents of Internet freedom, and has led to technological innovations and investments to combat the threat.

Highlighted in the New York Times, one such project is the New America Foundation’s “Internet in a suitcase,” developed by the research group’s Open Technology Initiative. With $2 million in State Department funds, the “shadow” Internet technology would create portable wireless access which could be used in the event of an Internet shutdown, and would be difficult to monitor.

“The implication is that this disempowers central authorities from infringing on people’s fundamental human right to communicate,” said Sascha Meinrath, director of the Open Technology Initiative said in an interview with the New York Times.

With national and transnational organizations weighing in, the focus on freedom of expression through the Internet seems to be in both the technical capacity for communication, and the arguably ideological capacity which results from political frameworks granting citizen rights. While the push for Internet freedom may not have been inspired by the most recent political unrest in the Middle East, or technological innovations like the “shadow” Internet, the two objectives seem to be going hand in hand.

House Subcommittee Weighs Consequences of New Obama Cybersecurity Proposal

in Congress/Cybersecurity/House of Representatives/Privacy by

WASHINGTON, May 27, 2011 – House Subcommittee members received answers long on ideas but short on specifics when they probed Obama administration officials during a hearing Wednesday on the President’s cybersecurity review.

The House Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on Intellectual Property, Competition, and the Internet explored the ramifications of the Obama administration’s Cyberspace Policy Review in an oversight hearing that featured two witness panels representing federal and private interests.

The first panel of witnesses testified that the proposed measures would clarify any existing Department of Homeland Security and Department of Justice authority regarding information sharing. The proposed measures would help keep consumers informed of what happens with their data in the case of a software system security breach. Additionally, the proposed measures would potentially grant immunity from civil liability to private sector entities that share information with government law enforcement agencies.

Rep. Mel Watt (D-NC) expressed concern, however, that the proposal might allow government encroachment on personal privacy if corporate software systems that contain personal data were compromised. Members also voiced concern that the proposal might limit private sector cybersecurity capabilities and preempt stronger state laws already in place.

“Despite the fact that the Federal sector grabs the headlines, in many respects it really is the private sector that stands on the front lines of cybersecurity,” said Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) in his opening statement.

Subcommittee members and private sector witnesses echoed a desire to avoid the creation of what has been referred to by critics as a government controlled Internet “kill switch.” The term references the method by which Egyptian government authorities shut down that nation’s Internet access in an attempt to control political unrest during uprisings earlier this year.

While legislators unsuccessfully introduced a measure earlier this year that would have authorized the shutdown of critical computer systems by the President in the event of a national cyber emergency, no such recommendation was included in the instant proposal.

Subcommittee members also expressed skepticism at the panel’s inability to give specifics to several questions, such as defining terms like ‘critical infrastructure’ and ‘critical information infrastructure.’ It was also not clear which large industries should be excluded from the measures.

Also, it was not clear to members which agency in the Executive Branch had final authority if the newly proposed measures were made into law.

“We have three government agencies testifying, but who’s really in charge of this?” asked Rep. Mel Watt (D-NC). “Who’s running the show?”

“The proposal [the administration] put forward reflects a whole of government approach,” replied James Baker, Associate Deputy Attorney General of the Department of Justice. “The Department of Justice will work to get the right people in front of you.”

Additionally, the new measures would not only clarify existing DOJ and DHS authority, but it would expand authority to prosecute cyber crime in the same manner as organized crime.

“Increasingly, cyber crimes are committed by groups who are organized, “said Baker. “We think we can use RICO to go after those people those people.”

Officially known as the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act, RICO is a United States federal law that allows for the prosecution and penalization for acts committed as part of an organized crime syndicate.

“They are well-organized, they are a threat to the country, and they are effective,” said Baker.

‘Kill Switch’ Legislation Faces Uphill Battle in Light of Egypt Crisis

in Congress/Cybersecurity by

Senate lawmakers are considering a measure that would allow the President  to declare a national cyber emergency and give him the power to use an internet “kill switch” which could shut down internet access nationally.

Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) originally introduced the Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset Act of 2010, which would have authorized the forming of an Office of Cyberspace Policy. This new office would have been given the responsibility of putting into place plans to protect the nation’s infrastructure from cyber-attacks.  The 2010 bill died when Congress failed to act on it; however, Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid (D-NV) reintroduced the bill to the new Congress last week under the title Cyber Security and American Cyber Competitiveness Act of 2011.

Those who oppose the legislation feel the bill hinders the neutrality of the internet, and could possible pose a threat to free speech. The most controversial element of the bill is the lack of specificity of the powers given to the president during a “national cyber emergency.”

A summary of the bill located on the Library of Congress web site specifies the President “notify the owners and operators of the infrastructure of the nature of the emergency, consistent with the protection of intelligence sources and methods.” The cyber emergency could last up to 30 days and be extended 30 days if the National Center for Cybersecurity and Communications (NCCC) Director and the President ‘ affirms that such measure or action remains necessary to address the continuing emergency.”

Detractors also point to actions that recently took place in Egypt, during which the Egyptian government shut down the nations internet in an attempt to control political unrest.

“The bill authorizes the NCCC, in an emergency declared by the President, to take unspecified emergency actions to preserve the reliable operation of particular covered critical infrastructure,” said the American Civil Liberties Union and twenty four other groups in a recent letter to congress. “The government can compel companies that own or operate critical infrastructure systems to take those undefined actions for 30‐day periods that may be renewed indefinitely. While the bill makes it clear that it does not authorize electronic surveillance beyond that authorized in current law, we are concerned that the emergency actions that could be compelled could include shutting down or limiting Internet communications that might be carried over covered critical infrastructure systems.”

The cosponsors of the bill say that this was not their intent as the bill was introduced before the unrest in Egypt.

“Some have suggested that our legislation would empower the president to deny U.S. citizens access to the Internet,” said the statement from Sen. Lieberman, Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), and Sen. Senator Tom Carper, (D-DE). “Nothing could be further from the truth.”

They said, however, that they’ll make sure their forthcoming legislation will contain contains language prohibiting the president from doing what occurred in Egypt.

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