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The day the Internet went dark

The Internet shutdown in Egypt last week is giving us a good look at the dark side of government Internet control.

A governmental “kill switch” is a two-sided coin. On one side, the government tells us this is for our “security,” assuring us that control of the Internet is for our protection. And on the other side of the coin, as we’ve seen in Egypt, a government also can use the “cyber kill switch” to protect itself from its citizens, cutting off communication to prevent them from organizing against an oppressive regime and/or involve themselves in the political process.

Could the same thing happen here in the United States? You bet.

Is this the Fairness Doctrine on steroids, where the government is the decider of what’s fair, what’s safe, what’s secure? After all, as they tell us, they just want to help.

Even President Obama helpfully tells us that information is a “distraction, a diversion, not being used as a tool for empowerment … putting new pressure on our country and our democracy.” See for yourself in this video.

Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, the Republican ranking member on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, attempts to reassure us that a cybersecurity bill is meant to protect, not harm. But ask the citizens of Cairo, what good are governmental assurances when there’s a gun to your head?

Legislation submitted during its first week of business in the U.S. Senate last week calls for Internet shutdown authority to be assumed by our government – specifically, to the executive branch. The Cyber Security and American Cyber Competitiveness Act of 2011, Senate Bill 21, was submitted on Jan. 25 by Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., and has been referred to the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. Given its priority status on the Senate calendar, it is expected to be fast-tracked into passage with an eye toward the unrest in Egypt.

The fuzzy language in this legislation describes Congress’ intent to “secure the United States against cyber attack, to enhance American competitiveness and create jobs in the information technology industry and to protect the identities and sensitive information of American citizens.”

Senate 21 co-sponsors are: Sen. Jeff Bingaman, N.M.; Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Calif.; Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, N.Y.; Sen. John F. Kerry, Mass.; Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vt.; Sen. Carl Levin, Mich.; Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, Conn.; Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, Md.; Sen. John D. Rockefeller, IV, W.V.; and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, R.I.

Some Capitol Hill watchers predict Congress intends to follow this vaguely worded first volley with more specific legislation that will include language with teeth – similar to language included in last year’s Internet control bills that expired with the 111th Congress – that give the President authority to control and shut down the Internet at his discretion.

“The Senate Leader introduced this bill as a placeholder for the 112th Congress. He wants to use it to push Judiciary, Commerce and Homeland Security committees to write cyber security legislation,” said Elizabeth Letchworth of Gradegov.com, retired secretary to the U.S. Senate. “Don’t be surprised if the Senate has a vote on this soon to show that cyber security is important to Congress, especially given the Egypt situation and the closing down of the Internet. As always, the devil is in the details, and S. 21 is vague to say the least.”

Should a government be involved in the Internet, an entity that has grown and flourished through free enterprise and the entrepreneurial spirit and without governmental encumbrances?

The world’s technology community was stunned to see Egypt’s government shut down Internet and mobile phone access in the face of widespread civil unrest, essentially cutting off its vital links for commerce and communication.

What happens when you disconnect a modern economy and millions of people from the Internet? What happens on the streets and in the credit markets?

That was the question posed on a blog by Jim Cowie, chief technology officer and co-founder of Renesys, a New Hampshire firm that monitors how the Internet is operating.

“Every Egyptian provider, every business, bank, Internet cafe, website, school, embassy and government office that relied on the big four Egyptian ISPs for their Internet connectivity is now cut off from the rest of the world,” he writes.

Renesys watched as about 93 percent of Egypt’s Internet traffic began to shut down after midnight Friday in Cairo. Cowie said he could track each of the country’s major Internet service providers as they began the shutdown and observed data that suggested government officials made a series of quick phone calls within a few minutes. That might be all it takes to cut off citizen communications.

In a statement at its company’s website, Vodafone Egypt said all of Egypt’s mobile operators were instructed to suspend services in selected areas. Egyptian legislation gave the government the right to issue such an order.

How does an Internet shutdown happen? First consider this: Telecom and Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are required through legislation or regulatory agencies to coordinate with government bureaucrat authorities. In other words, telecoms and ISPs are licensed by the government, so they are all beholden to that entity, and their licenses are dependent on following the rules.

Cowie continued, “Our new observation is that this was not an instantaneous event on the front end; each service provider approached the task of shutting down its part of the Egyptian Internet separately … this sequencing looks like people getting phone calls, one at a time, telling them to take themselves off the air. Not an automated system that takes all providers down at once; instead, the incumbent leads and other providers follow meekly one by one until Egypt is silenced.”

Citizen protesters used a Facebook page to list their demands and rally support. Facebook spokesman Andrew Noyes said in an e-mailed response to the Egyptian shutdown, “A world without the Internet is unimaginable.

“Although the turmoil in Egypt is a matter for the Egyptian people and their government to resolve, limiting Internet access for millions of people is a matter of concern for the global community,” he said. “It is essential to communication and to commerce. No one should be denied access to the Internet.”

The unrest in Egypt and Tunisia the week before underscore how vital and ingrained online social networks like Twitter and Facebook and the video-sharing site YouTube have become in exporting ideals such as freedom of speech.

Twitter was used to tweet unfolding events to the world until it was shut down. Twitter cofounder Biz Stone weighed in with his thoughts on the matter.

At least one technology reporter in this videotaped roundtable says Egypt’s Internet shutdown could impede the U.S. Congress’ efforts to control our country’s Internet.

Cowie of Renesys concluded: “I predict that Egypt’s “kill switch” experiment will serve as a cautionary tale: The economic and reputational costs of the shutdown far exceed the benefits of regaining total information control.”

Tell your Senator what you think. Write directly to him or her through Gradegov.com.

If S.21 legislation passes and the government controls the Internet, the government will possibly leave this link open for you and your family in your hour of need. After all, they know what’s best. They’re here to help.

OpenLeaks now competing with WikiLeaks to spill secrets

Several weeks ago we reported that WikiLeaks was about to face competition from a rival. Well, it’s happened. OpenLeaks is now online, allowing whistleblowers to choose specifically and anonymously who they want to submit documents to, i.e. a particular news outlet.

According to former WikiLeaks spokesman Daniel Domscheit-Berg, “We’d like to work with media outlets that have an interest in informing the public.”

Watch how it’s done.

Bits and bytes

The time capsule

1945 – Churchill, Roosevelt, Stalin plan final phase of war

1949 – Golfer Ben Hogan in near-fatal car crash

1959 – Buddy Holly killed in plane crash

1971 – Alan Shepard plays golf on moon

1974 – Patty Hearst kidnapped from Berkeley home

1979 – Ayatollah Khomeini returns to Iran

2003 – Shuttle Columbia disintegrates on re-entry

Now playing at the Princess Theater in Urbana, Ill.

Congratulations to WorldNetDaily readers Todd Moreno of Coats, N.C., and Rose Desjardins of Meraux, La., who were among the first to correctly guess actor Donald Sutherland in his portrayal of Mr. X in Oliver Stone’s movie “JFK”.

The film tells of the events surrounding the assassination of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy on November 22, 1963, in Dallas, Texas.

The quote: “Well that’s the real question, isn’t it? Why? The how and the who is just scenery for the public.”

This week’s quote: “Oh no, sir, this has been embarrassing for quite some time.”

Name the movie, the actor and the character. Send your answer to me at the email address below. Good luck!