NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Internet Kill Switch Would Be Complex and Expensive

February 22, 2011

On January 25th American senators reintroduced a bill granting the president emergency powers to shut down parts of the nation's Internet as a defense against cyber attack.  Three days later Egypt's embattled autocrats took their country offline.  The American bill's backers never expected an easy victory.  But outrage at the five-day shutdown of Egypt's once-flourishing Internet and its mobile phone network has given opponents of the "kill switch" in America and elsewhere some powerful arguments, says The Economist.

  • Proponents of the American bill say that they would never want a shutdown on Egyptian lines.
  • The powers would be needed, for example, if hackers took control of nuclear facilities, or were about to open the Hoover dam.
  • Critics call this scaremongering and fear that the White House will gain unnecessarily sweeping powers.
  • The people who run the networks are themselves best-placed to keep them safe, they argue.

Either way, the size and complexity of the networks in America, coupled with the fierce protection of laws guaranteeing free speech, make blackout or manipulation on an Egyptian scale almost unthinkable.  The more complex communications networks become, the harder it is to disable them swiftly, remotely or unilaterally.  A remote "kill switch," even if authorized, would be hugely complex and expensive to build and run.  An American Internet shutdown would require the cooperation or coercion of many hundreds of companies and individuals, says The Economist.

Source: "Reaching for the Kill Switch," The Economist, February 2011.

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