Should the U.S. President have the power to kill some or all of the internet? That's the power that a new bill would grant.  (Source: Flickr)

The new bill was sponsored by Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT).

ISPs who did not comply with orders handed down through the Department of Homeland Security would face steep fines.  (Source: Treehugger)
Bill proposed by Republican/Democrat Joe Lieberman would have virtually no limitations

The U.S. Senate is debating an unprecedented measure that would give the U.S. President and a branch of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) power to kill part or all of the internet hosted by private companies in the U.S., all in the name of protecting the motherland.  The bill, proposed by Senator Joe Lieberman (I-CT) who at times has been referred to as a Republican, Independent, or Democrat (much of his career was spent as a moderate Democrat) has few if any limitations.

The new bill is named Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset Act, or PCNAA.  The bill is similar to a different bill drafted by Sens. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.V.) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) that proposed giving the government power to "order the disconnection" of private networks or websites. 

Both bills have received a measure of support among both parties in the House and Senate.  And both have experienced a great deal of opposition from activists.

Under the new bill, a new government office called the National Center for Cybersecurity and Communications (NCCC) would be created under the umbrella of the DHS, and would be tasked with the responsibility to "preserve those networks and assets and our country and protect our people" -- a loosely worded definition which is thought would grant it the power to shut down virtually any network in the country. 

Under the measure it orders that networks "shall immediately comply with any emergency measure or action developed," including shutdown.  Failure to cooperate would result in steep fines.

The NCCC would force private companies to participate in what it calls "information sharing".  In exchange for their cooperation networking firms are handed a juicy nugget -- immunity from civil lawsuits.  The U.S. government would pick up the tab for any provable monetary damage that was created based on NCCC enforcement actions.

Virtually all private internet service providers would be mandated to cooperate with the bill.  Those who did not show evidence that they had a clear system in place to give the government control access would  meet punishment.  The NCCC could "issue an order" against such rebellious providers -- though the exact nature of the order is unknown.

Ultimately the bill creates a power structure with the U.S. President at the top.  The U.S. President could dictate enforcement actions to the DHS and by proxy NCCC, which would then be carried out.  Those enforcements could include everything from minor takedowns to pulling the plug on virtually the entire internet.

About the only limiting language in the bill is that it forbids the government from forcing ISPs to hand over traffic records without appropriate warrants.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-MA) praised the bill and is quoted by ZDNet as remarking, "We cannot afford to wait for a cyber 9/11 before our government realises the importance of protecting our cyber resources."

Technology and civil rights groups, though, are less thrilled.  TechAmerica, probably the largest US technology lobby group was quite unhappy, stating that the bill could create "unintended consequences that would result from the legislation's regulatory approach" and a dangerous "potential for absolute power".  The Center for Democracy and Technology agrees, commenting that giving the President the "authority to shut down or limit internet traffic on private systems" was unacceptable.

Nonetheless, the measure enjoys substantial backing both from Senate Democrats and Republicans and may soon be on its way to the House after some debate.

The full densely worded bill can be found here [PDF].

"We can't expect users to use common sense. That would eliminate the need for all sorts of legislation, committees, oversight and lawyers." -- Christopher Jennings

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