Should anyone have a 'kill switch' for the Internet?

The recent events in Egypt remind journalists not only of the physical peril inherent in covering conflict, but the evolving danger that journalists’ reporting can be kept from reaching the public at all.

Egypt’s crumbling regime has resorted to traditional techniques for silencing reporters, including beatings and arrests. (Reporters also have been assaulted by pro-government thugs during the ongoing anti-government protests.) But it was the Egyptian government’s action to cut access to the Internet early during the protests that also should prompt journalists around the world to take a closer look at their government’s attitude toward controlling the Internet.

Even here in the United States, there’s far from political unanimity on how the government should address the Internet. Consumer advocates want to the Federal Communications Commission to expand to wireless services its rules blocking Internet providers from slowing access to content providers who don’t pay telecommunication companies an extra fee, beyond hosting and bandwidth charges. The telcos want the government to butt out and quit preventing them from finding new ways to make money to maintain and expand their networks. The Department of Homeland Security is shutting down websites (including ones outside the US) that link to live streams of copyrighted televise broadcasts.

And some members of Congress have proposed legislation that would allow the government to shut down parts of the Internet in a “national emergency.”

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) told last week that she might reintroduce the Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset Act of 2010 in this Congressional session. The bill is designed to legally enable the federal government to shut down parts of the Internet under cyber attack – creating an effective firewall between comprised networks and the rest of the Internet.

I can’t imagine not wanting to preserve the integrity of the Internet in a time of crisis, when efficient communication can become even more important. But giving anyone in the federal government a “kill switch” for the Internet ought to concern any advocate for free speech, especially in light of what Egypt has done.

The bill contains a provision against censorship, but, as pointed out, similar language in the Patriot Act didn’t stop the feds from using that legislation to spy on interest groups.

The definition of an attack changes with your point of view, as well. I’m certain that the Mubarak regime in Egypt considered the outpouring of support for change in that nation an “attack” on its national security.

Throughout history, people have made money and achieved power by controlling access points in commerce, including ports, portages, mountain passes, and roads. In recent times, others have earned money and power by owning access points for the passage of information, such as the town’s printing press, a broadcast license or, later, cable TV franchise.

While restricting the flow of people, goods and information through access points can enrich those who control those points, opening access helps spread that wealth among a larger population, often creating additional wealth in the process.

It’s ridiculous to insist that the U.S. government stay out of the Internet. Heck, it created the thing. Like interstate highways or global air and sea traffic routes, the Internet’s too important to allow it to fall under the control of a handful of corporations.

Or a few government officials.

That’s why I believe that government’s role in the Internet ought to be:

  • Protecting open access to this information marketplace, preventing service providers from denying access to publishers.
  • Promoting the expansion of Internet access to more people.
  • Promoting the expansion of bandwidth across the Internet.
  • Promoting the establishment of more redundancy within the Internet, to improve reliability and minimize the effectiveness of both cyber attack and censorship.

Regardless of your opinion on those points, I hope that the revolution under way in Egypt will inspire more online publishers to speak up when politicians debate regulation of the Internet. This issue means too much to us as business people, and too much to us as leaders in the communities we serve, for we to keep quiet and leave these decisions to others.

What’s happening in Egypt also reminds us that brave reporters risk their lives to bring the rest of us the news. We owe it to them, as well as to their audience, to do everything we can to ensure that the news they report can and will get out to the rest of the world.

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at