If you track tech politics closely, there’s a good chance you can spot a Declan McCullagh column before you glance at the byline. McCullagh, a reporter and commentator for CNET, has a tendency to hang any tech news of the day on an anti-government framework, rarely stopping at healthy skepticism when there's a chance to spark full-blown hysteria. By his own admission, McCullagh started the ridiculous and harmful “Al Gore invented the Internet” meme in the late '90s. McCullagh’s latest hit tearing up the Web is that the Senate is considering a Sen. Joe Lieberman bill to equip the president with a “kill switch” over the Internet.
The problem with a McCullagh framing is that it's intensely polarizing. The natural responses to it are either to become completely terrified or to write pieces completely discounting his concerns. TPMDC’s Megan Carpentier does a nice job fact checking the “kill switch," proving how overblown the McCullagh interpretation of it is. But she does, I think, fall into the trap of underplaying legitimate concerns about how Lieberman and his co-sponsors are proposing securing the Internet and affiliated digital networks.
A healthy skepticism is probably the appropriate response to Lieberman’s Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset Act, as it does seem to suggest a shift in the Internet's public-private dynamic. People in the cybersecurity and intelligence worlds have been debating for decades now over whether the insecurity of the Internet cries out for greater government ability to intervene in Internet traffic (or maybe even the creation of separate networks for banking, energy, and other core parts of the life of the country). The Lieberman plan would, indeed, rely upon private owners and operators of critical digital infrastructure – “systems and assets…so vital to the United States that the incapacity or destruction of such systems and assets would have a debilitating impact” to pull the relevant definition from the PATRIOT Act – to develop emergency security plans that can be triggered by presidential order. In normal times, the Internet stays the Internet. But in recognition of its centrality to the American way of life, the president has the power to, say, order that traffic coming from China be blocked in a crisis. That’s not nothing.
And that's also the debate, I'd suggest, we should be having. How will the “cyberspace” we increasingly depend on be protected while at the same time maintaining its metamorphic nature as a free and open medium? Not fighting over how big a power-grabbing jerk Joe Lieberman is this week.
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