American Morning

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September 2nd, 2009
10:01 AM ET

Give president power to take over the Internet?

In the 1960s, it was the stuff of science fiction – connecting the world through personal computers. 40 years ago today, the Internet was born and since then it has transformed our lives with tweets, e-mails, blogs and a whole lot more.

Its growth has also put our security at risk with just about everything plugged in these days. Washington's current effort to beef up cyber security has some critics concerned.

[cnn-photo-caption image= caption="Nick Thompson of Wired magazine says cyber security is a serious problem, particularly for the United States."]

Nick Thompson is the senior editor at Wired magazine. He joined John Roberts on CNN’s “American Morning” Wednesday.

John Roberts: The story is out there Congress is fashioning a bill that would give the president the power to take over the Internet. And any suggestion that the government could take over the Internet just drives people who have that libertarian view of the World Wide Web crazy.

Nick Thompson: Absolutely and there are a lot of people who have the libertarian view of the Internet. And if the government really were going to take over the Internet it would be a terrible idea. You can imagine a situation where there’s a coup d'état – “They take over the Internet. Well, dissent is supposed to spread on the Internet so it would block the people’s opportunity to protest against the government. It would be just awful.”

Roberts: Okay, so there’s a bill in the Senate. Jay Rockefeller’s committee is writing it. It did have some language in it that was troubling to people early on this year. It said it would "give the president the power to order the limitation or shutdown of Internet traffic." Since then the bill's been rewritten somewhat. Now it would just give the president the power to declare a cyber security emergency, do what's necessary to respond to the threat. But really does it give the president the power to take over the Internet?

Thompson: No, absolutely not. The early version was troubling. It came out on April 1st. It looked like a bad April Fool's joke. The new version – it’s so bland. It says, if there's a cyber emergency the president may, if he thinks it's necessary, direct the response in coordination with the private sector. There are about five hedges built into it. It basically gives the president no additional powers than he already has and in fact Obama has been very clear that he does not want to take over private networks.

Roberts: Obviously cyber security is a huge problem. There are thousands and thousands of attacks. We saw the denial of service attacks, people trying to hack into [Department of Defense] computers most recently back in June or July. … How big a problem is cyber security?

Thompson: It’s a serious problem and it’s a particularly important problem for the United States. The United States is a powerful country. Cyber attacks are a tool in a conflict of the weak against the strong. The weak can relatively easily organize a cyber attack. So it’s something we need to be extremely organized and extremely worried about. And we don't even know who attacked us in July, so there's a lot of work that needs to be done.

Roberts: That's part of the problem too; you don't know where the attacks are coming from. So how do you even begin to prosecute?

Thompson: You don't know how to prosecute them. You don’t know how to fight back against them. There's a lot we need to do better.

Roberts: The president already has a lot of power dealing with a national emergency, as we saw after 9/11 – the shutdown of all air traffic across the country, grounded every plane, got out there and said put everything that's in the sky on the ground now. Is this bill really necessary?

Thompson: Well, I don't – the bill is necessary in that it provides for all sorts of infrastructure training, scholarships for people. There are a lot of useful things in the bill. The clause that everybody is angst-ridden about – no it’s not necessary. So why does it exist? It probably exists for one of two of reasons. One – people may be concerned that in a time of crisis power will be given to the DOD and the NSA and they're much more secretive than the Obama administration. So in fact, it may be a sideways effort to open this up.

And then secondly, everybody knows cyber security is a big issue. So everybody in the Senate wants to have the major cyber security bill under their name. So all of these different committees are fighting over it and they’re writing bills quickly and they’re trying to define the problem in a way that will give their committee jurisdiction over it. So this particular bill is coming from the Commerce committee. So they’re defining it in a way that puts the authority under the Commerce committee so they can have the bill under their name and structure it.

Roberts: There's also a little provision in the bill that would require certification for people who are involved in cyber security infrastructure protection. Is that just adding another level of unnecessary bureaucracy? Because people who are involved in that, whether they’re government-certified or not, certainly have a tremendous amount of expertise.

Thompson: Right, absolutely. And there are lots of very smart people, Bill Gates as an example, who don't even have college degrees. You’re going to ask them to get another degree to be able to work on this particular problem?

Roberts: Bill Gates needs a certification from the government, Commerce department certification.

Thompson: That's probably a silly part of the bill but there are a lot of very interesting and useful parts of the bill, too, I think.

Filed under: Controversy • Technology
soundoff (One Response)
  1. Bob

    I think you'd have to get permission from AL Gore....he claims to have invented the internet...but then Gore; while questioning Olly North during the Iran/Contra congressional hearings; laughed at Olly when he asked why he'd spent some $60K for a home security system....North replied he feared having problems with a terrorist...Gore laughing, asked what terrorist was so bad that North worried about which North replied, his name is Osama Bin Ladin.

    September 4, 2009 at 7:01 pm |