Uproar this year over an "Internet Kill Switch" bill has largely subsided because the legislation has stalled in the Senate. The summer controversy focused on a proposed presidential power to declare a national emergency and shut down parts of the Web dealing with "critical infrastructure," for up to four weeks — which under a willing White House legal adviser, critics said, might lead to Chinese-style Web censorship for political enemies.
Actually, the bill was never so specific.
Sen. Joe Lieberman and its other sponsors in the Senate have argued the Protecting Cyberspace As a National Asset Act has no "kill switch" provision, only a sort of emergency-brake feature for the president in case of cyberwar. Or something.
"What authority the government would have is not laid out at all in the law," said Michelle Richardson, an ACLU lawyer tasked with tracking the bill. Adam Cohen was right last month when he argued in Time that the bill's language had to be far more precise before people start to freak out (on one hand) or Congress allows it to become law (on the other).
But Chinese-style censorship already exists in the West. Germany has blocked Holocaust-deniers from its patch of the Internet since the '90s. In February, the Berlin government passed a more sinister law meant to keep child pornography away from German screens. The law allows the Bundeskriminalamt (BKA), a sort of German FBI, to compile secret lists of outlawed sites. The law will be reviewed for its effectiveness after one year.
Needless to say, German free-speech advocates hate the law for its lack of transparency. They accused Ursula von der Leyden, then-Minister of Family Affairs, of passing a dangerous censorship law under cover of "protecting kids." The Family Affairs ministry has a record of hassling legitimate sites for the protection of young minds: A site called Body Modification Ezine, or BME, was pursued in 1999 because it refused to ask visitors for their ages. The site has graphic snapshots of tattoos and piercings and naked flesh; it had a large following in Germany, and the owner (who lived in Canada at the time) openly refused to comply with a detail of German law. In the meantime, BME hasn't landed on a government blacklist — it can be viewed from Germany — but its URL is invisible to Google Deutschland.
Opponents of the new German law came up with a more effective method of erasing child-porn sites from the Web: They sent e-mails to various ISPs that were (unwittingly) hosting the content. These ISPs took down "over 60 websites containing child pornographic content in 12 hours," according to netzpolitik.org, a German forum for online free speech. The protesters argued that the BKA was being lazy as well as underhanded by filtering these sites on its own.
Other European governments maintain child-pornography blacklists, including Denmark and Finland, the Czech Republic and the United Kingdom. American laws to shield kids (like the Children's Internet Protection Act) tend toward blocking porn on certain computers at certain locations, like libraries and schools, instead of sending all Internet traffic through a central filter, which has become the European way.
National security, for some reason, is a more effective political lever than child pornography for passing Internet restrictions in America. The cybersecurity bill moving through the Senate therefore needs to be watched carefully for its language on the "kill switch" — especially since the bill's backers in the Senate want to piggyback it onto a defense bill that probably will pass this fall.
"It's hard to get a measure like cybersecurity legislation passed on its own," said Sen. Thomas Carper, D-Del., last week, explaining to Government Information Security that attaching the Protecting Cyberspace act as a rider on the defense bill may be the way to pass it before midterm elections change the complexion of Congress.