The government is considering whether social media services should be shut off at times of disorder, the British prime minister, David Cameron, has told parliament.
Cameron’s comments were made in a speech to the House of Commons on Thursday. Parliament has been recalled from its summer recess to respond to the violent disorder that has affected London, Manchester, Birmingham and other UK cities.
“Mr Speaker, everyone watching these horrific actions will be stuck by how they were organised via social media,” Cameron said. “Free flow of information can be used for good. But it can also be used for ill.”
Well, true, things would be much easier without that pesky “free flow of information.” Sort of reminiscent of this:
Internet connections across Egypt have been cut, as authorities geared up for a day of mass protest. Net analysis firms and web watchers have reported that the vast majority of the country’s internet has become unreachable.
The resurgence of the so-called “kill switch” legislation came the same day Egyptians faced an internet blackout designed to counter massive demonstrations in that country. The bill, which has bipartisan support, is being floated by Sen. Susan Collins, the Republican ranking member on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
“My legislation would provide a mechanism for the government to work with the private sector in the event of a true cyber emergency,” Collins said in an e-mail Friday. “It would give our nation the best tools available to swiftly respond to a significant threat.”
An aide to the Homeland Security committee described the bill as one that does not mandate the shuttering of the entire internet. Instead, it would authorize the president to demand turning off access to so-called “critical infrastructure” where necessary.
About two dozen groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Library Association, Electronic Frontier Foundation and Center for Democracy & Technology, were skeptical enough to file an open letter opposing the idea. They are concerned that the measure, if it became law, might be used to censor the internet.
“It is imperative that cyber-security legislation not erode our rights,” (.pdf) the groups wrote last year to Congress.
A congressional white paper (.pdf) on the measure said the proposal prohibits the government from targeting websites for censorship “based solely on activities protected by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.”
Oddly, that’s exactly the same language in the Patriot Act used to test whether the government can wiretap or investigate a person based on their political beliefs or statements.