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US Senator wants Internet seizure rights

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A new bill introduced to Congress calls for a new government body to oversee the internet as well as provide emergency powers to a “director of cyberspace policy” as well as the President.

The Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset Act (PCNAA), introduced by Senator Joe Lieberman, would amend the Homeland Security Act of 2002 and extend the already-broad definition of “critical infrastructure” to the Internet.

Since the United States is home to most of the Internet root server locations, as well as most of the companies serving up critical Internet functions such as VeriSign (operator of dot-com), ICANN (overseeing DNS policy body), and with ICANN and VeriSign working under a US government contract to provide the location of all other Internet registries across the world, such a Bill would effectively give a single individual de facto control over the internet.

As such, were the Act to be passed into law, it would cause the almost immediate fracturing of the internet into dozens of different networks and have a devastating impact on the “security and resiliency of the cyber and communications infrastructure” that it purported to protect.

Despite Senator Lieberman’s position as chairman of the Senate's Homeland Security Committee, this Bill will be gutted or shelved altogether following active lobbying by those that run the internet’s infrastructure, as well as the countless US companies that rely on the internet for their business, US government civil servants, the White House, and any and all elected officials asked to review it.

It is not the first time Senator Lieberman has used his position on the Committee to promote a headline-grabbing double-whammy of internet and security fears.

In 2008, he piggybacked on a Terrorism Prevention Act (that was subsequently dropped) to voice his concern that terrorists were using the internet to promote their views. He made headlines by castigating YouTube, produced a report called “Violent Islamist Extremism, the internet, and the Homegrown Terrorist Threat” and threatened to introduce a Bill to give the US government powers over the internet. As soon as the headlines dropped, so did the proposed legislation.

This time, the spark has been recent coverage of a cybersecurity bill, the International Cybercrime Reporting and Cooperation Act; a suggestion by Defense Secretary Lynn that a cybersurveillance program be created; and a book by the counterterrorism adviser of Presidents Clinton and Bush, Richard Clarke, called Cyberwar: The Next Threat to National Security and What to Do About It. Neither the cybercrime act nor the cybersurveillance program nor the cyberwar book suggests the government be given any powers over Internet infrastructure.

But Senator Lieberman is not the only Senator guilty of playing on fears and a general misunderstanding of how the internet works to put forward bad legislation.

Senators Jay Rockefeller and Olympia Snowe proposed in the CyberSecurity Act of 2009 that the President be given similar all-encompassing powers over the internet.

In this case, the President would be given the right to shut down all internet traffic in an emergency, as well as the right to disconnect part of the internet’s infrastructure. The Commerce Secretary was also to be given the power to have access to all data over networks deemed as “critical infrastructure”.

Rather worrying at the time, Senators Rockefeller and Snowe appeared to be much more serious about their proposals that Senator Lieberman is currently. Nevertheless, following a reality-check of how the internet actually functions, all the provisions were pulled out and the Act now requires US government agencies to prepare emergency contingency plans, rather than give them the right to seize control of infrastructure.

The core reality of the internet, as has been explained to disbelieving government officials the world over, is that the internet comprises hundreds of thousands of networks, the vast majority run by private companies, that all voluntarily choose to connect together because of the inherent advantages in them doing so.

As soon as some external body attempts to enforce control over any part of that network, and so change accepted behavior, the rest of the network simply routes around it. And in order to be in that position in the first place, the government would have to assert mass ownership over privately-held property.

However, until an understanding of how the internet functions becomes general knowledge, we can expect to see more absolutist plans for internet control, particularly in the United States, where much of the hierarchical infrastructure currently resides. ®

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