Saturday, June 19, 2010

Dreams of 1984 (Or, Lieberman Is a Donkey, Step Off My Internet Access)

The past week has been full of distractions, some sad (Celtics losing to the LA Lakers in a nail biting game 7), some depressing (the continued spewing of oil in the Gulf and associated congressional testimonies implying criminal negligence on the part of BP which led the CEO of BP partner Anadarko Petroleum Corp. to Blast BP's 'Reckless Decisions And Actions' ) and some just downright ugly (Robbie Findley being called for a handball inside the 6-yard box when replays from multiple angles incontrovertibly showed the ball hitting only Findley's face).

Yet, even as the gladiators fought hard to entertain the mob--and did they ever--the new and very significant powers being envisaged by our "friendly" politicians on Capital Hill were not completely obscured. The latest reach for power comes from our lovably loquacious party-switching Joe Lieberman, the former running mate of Al-"I took the initiatives in creating the internet"-Gore and current chair of the Homeland Security committee. Senator Lieberman (along with Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine, and Democratic Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware) sponsored a bill on Thursday that proposes to give the president the authority "to seize control of or even shut down portions of the Internet."

If you think government power has not grown enough over the past decade wait until you hear about the new authority that would be granted to the government if this bill is passed. Essentially the bill would create an Internet "kill switch" as it would require private companies involved in the dissemination of online content such as broadband providers, search engines, and software firms to immediately comply with emergency measures or actions put in place by the Department of Homeland Security, or else face significant fines. (As you continue reading, remember that Senator Lieberman chairs the Homeland Security Committee.)

As part of the proposed measures of this bill, a new agency would be created within the Department of Homeland Security called the National Center for Cybersecurity and Communications (NCCC). According to CBS4, any private company that relies on "the Internet, the telephone system, or any other component of the U.S. 'information infrastructure'... [would be] subject to command... [by the NCCC]," Furthermore, "selected private companies would be required to participate in 'information sharing' with the Feds."

It probably goes without saying that a number of groups and organizations have criticized the bill, warning of the "potential for absolute power" and expressing reservations about the "unintended consequences that would result from the legislation's regulatory approach." But what is most scary to this author is that Lieberman has included a provision that would prevent customer lawsuits against companies affected during an incident related to cyber-vulnerability, in order to help persuade the industry to embrace the bill.

Before I go on to defend certain very basic merits pertaining to the bill's central surface concerns, I feel obliged to remind everyone that just six months ago the United States of America conspicuously, if not strategically, positioned herself up in the moral high grounds during her politicized battle against China regarding China's longstanding policy to filter its Internet search results from its citizens. When US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, became publicly involved in the matter, which many at the time thought was unnecessary and could have had serious international implications, it became clear that the US was explicitly positioning itself as the ultimate defenders of Internet Freedom. Yet, somehow, here we are less than a year later proposing not to filter results, but to give unilateral power to a single human being to completely shut down communication entirely. Yikes!! Those lines are so far apart its hard not to read between them.

The legislation would not only create a "kill switch" but would give the sole power to press it to the U.S. president during times of "national emergency." I put "national emergency" in quotes because it seems like we have been in the midst of a national emergency for as long as I have been alive. (Chomsky has much to say on this matter)

With all my objections to this proposed bill, I must say there is a legitimate concern in that the bill recognizes how much of our lives has migrated to the Matrix (insert corny comment about There Is No Spoon here). As such, we should establish standards for protecting them. However, let me tell you as someone who has worked as a web programmer and data analyst off and on for the past 10 years, shutting off the power very rarely solves the problem and quite often makes matters worse. How many of you have had this happen to you or someone else you know: You accidentally print an entire document or do not realize that the previous print settings were set to print numerous copies. By the time you realize it, the entire print job has been passed on to the printer memory. You move to shutoff or unplug the printer. It stops. "Thank goodness!" you think to yourself and proceed to plug it back in just to learn--to your dismay--that its still printing!

The analogy I am making here does not refute the bill itself, as there are far worse things that could happen with the creation of totalitarian power, however, it is important to realize that a great many unforeseen and unexpected consequences can occur when technology is involved and the very simplistic notion that by pulling the plug you can avoid bad things from happening is, frankly, ridiculous.

Another question that struck me when I learned about the inner workings of this proposed bill is: Why on earth would the President of the United States be the one to possess this power? Well you silly little goose, its because, as Huffington Post poetically smirked, "the Internet is the property of the U.S.A.—or at least that's what a person would assume after learning the bill's name: The 'Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset Act.'" Woah!!! Really? Jon Stewart, where are you when I need you. I hate to tell you Lieberman and Co., but rightly or wrongly, there is a pseudo-synonym for Cyberspace called the World Wide Web, and in case you thought the rest of the world was not aware of that fact, there is a little clue at the front of most URL's that starts with www.

Perhaps we should take the barbecue sauce off CEO Hayward for a few days (so he can attend to the international disaster under his watch) and throw Lieberman on the grill for a change.

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