U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said Wednesday that there is no merit to arguments that her cyber-security legislation would grant the president power to unilaterally shut down the country's Internet.
Collins' proposal has sparked alarm from libertarians, civil rights activists and the technology community that the legislation gives the president so-called "kill switch" power similar to that recently used by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Last week, Mubarak shut down that country's Internet access in an attempt to stymie ongoing civil unrest and protests that some believe were coordinated by social media.
The uprising in Egypt has spurred opposition to Collins' proposal, which had already faced criticism when it was introduced last year.
Collins and Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, introduced the proposal last year, but it stalled when lawmakers couldn't decide which agency should be granted oversight.
Collins has promised to introduce the bill again this session, but she and Lieberman have been put on the defensive amid the events in Egypt.
On Wednesday, Collins, Lieberman and Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., released a joint statement saying comparisons between their proposed cyber-security legislation and Mubarak's actions were specious.
"The steps the Mubarak government took last week to shut down Internet communications in Egypt were, and are, totally wrong," Collins said. "His actions were clearly designed to limit internal criticisms of his government."
Collins said she would never sign on to legislation that authorized the president, or anyone else, to shut down the Internet. "Emergency or no, the exercise of such broad authority would be an affront to our Constitution."
Collins and Lieberman have said their proposal would grant the president power to shut down Internet systems related only to critical infrastructure, such as the power grid in the event of an attack.
Additionally, the bill authorizes the president to use the power "if there is an ongoing or imminent" attack that would "cause national or regional catastrophic effects," such as a mass casualty event or a large evacuation.
The bill also requires that the president notify Congress, and that emergency measures not be continued beyond 120 days without congressional approval.
It also prohibits action that would violate the First Amendment, such as shutting off e-mail, "unless no other action would prevent a regional or national catastrophe."
Collins said the president already has broad authority to shut down the Internet through powers granted in the Communications Act of 1934, which allows the president to take over or cut off wire and radio communication providers.
She said her proposal is designed to limit that power and improve protections not included in the Communications Act, "a crude sledgehammer built for another time and technology."
Still, technology groups and the American Civil Liberties Union worry about the implications of Collins' proposal, which they say removes judicial review from the president's decision to designate something a "critical asset" subject to government action in the name of protecting "cyber security."
John Dvorak, a noted technology writer, said the bill is supported by people "who are clueless about the Internet."
"The fact is that we have the right kind of network engineers at most of the big (Internet Service Provider) operations," Dvorak wrote in a column this week. "They all know each other and can do more within their tech group to thwart any sort of cyber attack than the office of the President of the United States could ever do."
Dvorak added, "My advice is to leave the thing alone. This switch would do more harm than good, and I question the motives behind it."
Collins said the country must update its defenses in the event of a catastrophic cyber attack, adding that such an attack isn't likely, it's imminent. Her office cited a report from the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs in which the Senate’s Sergeant at Arms reported that the computer systems of the Executive Branch agencies and the Congress are now under cyber attack an average of 1.8 billion times per month.
The legislation's biggest obstacle could be determining which government agency would have oversight.
Some Democrats have argued that cyber security should fall under the purview of the Department of Homeland Security. However, some leading Republicans have countered that the Pentagon or the National Security Agency should be in charge, a prospect that has sparked additional concerns from civil liberties groups.
A Collins aide said the legislation had not yet been assigned a bill number. However, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has created a placeholder for the bill.