A long time ago I saved news links to a story that got very little buzz at the time but caught my attention…the possibility that the president might issue an executive order to control the internet, under the pretext of security concerns. The story has recycled now, I’m not good at cleaning out saved files, and so dots are easier to connect.

In the many news feeds and press releases and bulletins and emails I get every day, this item popped up by a news hound who sends out loads of links to hot button issues of the day. At first glance, I thought it was an old story just discovered (happens a lot on the internet, as we all know). But reading it through again, it seems to have lurked under radar for a long while, and its surfacing again.

The president of the United States will be able to essentially flip switch and turn off the Internet during times of a national crisis or emergency, as defined by the president. I don’t know what limits there are on it, but it’s cybersecurity, and the president’s going to have that power…

“At a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing, [Secretary of Homeland Security Janet] Napolitano said the executive order is ‘still being drafted in the inter-agency process’ and ‘is close to completion depending on a few issues that need to be resolved at the highest levels.’”

It says here, “The White House began to explore an executive order last month after Senate Republicans blocked” the bill. Yep. Republicans said (summarized), “What do you mean the president’s gonna have the power to turn off the Internet? We’re not gonna do that!” So Obama said, “To hell with you guys. We’ll just bypass you.” Obama is again set to bypass Congress, which has rejected any attempt to pass this kind of legislation.

All of which is not new. He took this stance a while back.

“The president expressed frustration, saying we have got to scour everything and push the envelope in finding things we can do on our own.”

For Mr. Obama, that meeting was a turning point. As a senator and presidential candidate, he had criticized George W. Bush for flouting the role of Congress. And during his first two years in the White House, when Democrats controlled Congress, Mr. Obama largely worked through the legislative process to achieve his domestic policy goals.

But increasingly in recent months, the administration has been seeking ways to act without Congress. Branding its unilateral efforts “We Can’t Wait,” a slogan that aides said Mr. Obama coined at that strategy meeting, the White House has rolled out dozens of new policies…

Each time, Mr. Obama has emphasized the fact that he is bypassing lawmakers. When he announced a cut in refinancing fees for federally insured mortgages last month, for example, he said: “If Congress refuses to act, I’ve said that I’ll continue to do everything in my power to act without them.”

Aides say many more such moves are coming. Not just a short-term shift in governing style and a re-election strategy, Mr. Obama’s increasingly assertive use of executive action could foreshadow pitched battles over the separation of powers in his second term, should he win and Republicans consolidate their power in Congress.

Now add this use of executive action to the desire to control information, and anything is possible. But we heard rumblings of this in 2009.

A Senate bill would offer President Obama emergency control of the Internet and may give him a “kill switch” to shut down online traffic by seizing private networks — a move cybersecurity experts worry will choke off industry and civil liberties.

Details of a revamped version of the Cybersecurity Act of 2009 emerged late Thursday, months after an initial version authored by Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.V., was blasted in Silicon Valley as dangerous government intrusion.

“In the original bill they empowered the president to essentially turn off the Internet in the case of a ‘cyber-emergency,’ which they didn’t define,” said Larry Clinton, president of the Internet Security Alliance, which represents the telecommunications industry.

“We think it’s a very bad idea … to put in legislation,” he told FOXNews.com.
Clinton said the new version of the bill that surfaced this week is improved from its first draft, but troubling language that was removed was replaced by vague language that could still offer the same powers to the president in case of an emergency.

“The current language is so unclear that we can’t be confident that the changes have actually been made,” he said.

The new legislation allows the president to “declare a cybersecurity emergency” relating to “non-governmental” computer networks and make a plan to respond to the danger, according to an excerpt published online — a broad license that rights experts worry would give the president “amorphous powers” over private users.

“As soon as you’re saying that the federal government is going to be exercising this kind of power over private networks, it’s going to be a really big issue,” Lee Tien, a senior staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told CNET News.

It bubbled up again in 2010.

Senators Lieberman, Collins, and Carper have proposed cybersecurity legislation that would require Internet service providers and search engines to develop a “kill switch” to shut down entire swathes of the Web, or even the whole Internet, at the president’s order. Is this systemic control-alt-delete a smart security measure or a potential freedom of information overreach?

Read the cross-section of snips that follow that question. They’re more worrisome than not.

So then along comes this issue again, now. And once again, virtually under radar. But not fully.

The White House has finally responded to criticism over US President Barack Obama’s hushed signing last week of an Executive Order that allows the government to command privately-owned communication systems and acknowledges its implications.

When President Obama inked his name to the Assignment of National Security and Emergency Preparedness Communications Functions Executive Order on July 6, he authorized the US Department of Homeland Security to take control of the country’s wired and wireless communications — including the Internet — in instances of emergency. The signing was accompanied with little to no acknowledgment outside of the White House, but initial reports on the order quickly caused the public to speak out over what some equated to creating an Oval Office kill switch for the Web. Now the Obama administration is addressing those complaints by calling the Executive Order a necessary implement for America’s national security.

“The [order] recognizes the creation of DHS and provides the Secretary the flexibility to organize the communications systems and functions that reside within the department as [Homeland Security Secretary Janet A. Napolitano] believes will be most effective,” White House spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden tells the Washington Post.

Hayden insists that “The [order] does not transfer authorities between or among departments,” but the order does indeed allow the DHS to establish and implement control over even the privately owned communication systems in the country, including Internet Service Providers such as Time Warner, Verizon and Comcast, if the administration agrees that it is warranted for security’s sake.

Sorry folks, that’s just chilling to me. Given the powers this government has taken upon itself to deny freedoms and liberties for falsified and fantastically fabricated reasons, there’s good reason to be skeptical at the very least.

Immediately after last week’s signing, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) said the order allowed the DHS “the authority to seize private facilities when necessary, effectively shutting down or limiting civilian communications.”

Following up with the Post this week, EPIC attorney Amie Stephanovich stands by that initial explanation, agreeing that the DHS can now “seize control of telecommunications facilities, including telephone, cellular and wireless networks, in order to prioritize government communications over private ones in an emergency.”

“The previous orders did not give DHS those authorities over private and commercial networks,” adds. Stepanovich. “That’s a new authority.”

According to the order, the DHS can take charge of “commercial, government, and privately owned communications resources” to satisfy what is described as “priority communication requirements.” With little insight from outside the White House, though, what constitutes such an emergency may very well be decided on by Washington, where the country’s elected leaders are still split on all things involving the Internet.

Emphasis added, for good reason.

“This should have been done by Congress, so there could have been proper debate about it,” Stepanovich tells the Post of last week’s signing. “This is not authority that should be granted by executive order.”

White House spokesperson Hayden adds to the Post, “Mobile phones, the Internet, and social media are all now integral to the communications landscape,” concreting still the allegations that this order could be used as a kill switch to any of the millions upon millions of handheld and desktop devices across the country.

Everyone across the world who got so engaged when the US Congress was considering SOPA and PIPA legislation ought to be aware of this. It sure concerns me. What they couldn’t do to kill social networking throughout the developing world, even in Iran with the determined democracy movement, they may be able to pull off in the US by executive fiat.

Which is unimaginable. Except after the HHS mandate.

Sheila Liaugminas

Sheila Liaugminas is an Emmy award-winning Chicago-based journalist in print and broadcast media. Her writing and broadcasting covers matters of faith, culture, politics and the media....