The title of legislation proffered by U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman is benign enough—"Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset Act of 2010"—and seductive enough to sound like an answer to Internet hacking.
Beware. Americans have been burned in the past by homeland security measures with alluring names.
Consider ignominious sections of The Patriot Act—officially known by its sugary name, "Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001," that President George W. Bush rushed through Congress a month after 9/11.
And who can forget the terrorism-alert color codes—in descending threat levels of red, orange, yellow, blue and green—that seemed to shoot up when Bush needed a political boost. No less than then-Homeland Security Chief Tom Ridge revealed that Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld tried to force him (Ridge) to raise the alert level on the eve of the 2004 presidential election (he refused). But security analysts noticed a peculiar pattern of raised threat levels whenever Bush was in a political slump.
So, back to Lieberman's bill. In one version, he reportedly had a "kill switch" provision allowing the president, whoever he or she is, to yank the plug on the Internet and shut it down completely.
Lieberman's stunning rationale: "Right now, China, the government, can disconnect parts of its Internet in a case of war. We need to have that here, too."
What a lovely model for the bill. Communist China also has pulled the plug in various ways to prevent its citizens from using the Internet for political protest. Until Iran seized its Internet, protesters against that government had used e-mails to keep their revolt alive.
If Lieberman is now watering down the bill and removing "kill switch" presidential powers, and simply presenting 199 pages of Washington gobbledygook, then it's a waste of everyone's time.
Yes, cyber security is a problem. Hackers have broken into Pentagon files, and Chinese spies have broken into U.S. industry programs. They are a serious threat.
The solution lies in a joint industry-government crash program to develop the very best high-tech barriers to hackers, foreign and domestic.
Giving government, especially the president, unprecedented control over America's trunk line of information, over electronic free speech and over business activities simply invites suspicions about whether it would be used politically to frighten people at election time—as did the color-code alerts—and to trample on constitutional rights like the Patriot Act did.