WITN?: Exit ignorance, pursued by a bear. The truth behind Obama's plan to take over the Internet

bear-and-laptopFeeling a bit under the weather yesterday – presumably my body’s reaction to the fact that San Francisco has suddenly become sunny – I decided to take a jaunt around the Internet for column ideas. My deadline was a whole 24 hours away, but it doesn’t hurt to be prepared, right?

My first find was this story about a bear who had got trapped in a Colorado skate park, presumably after breaking in to practice his Ollies, or whatever it is bears do on skateboards. The bear was finally rescued when townsfolk dropped a ladder into the park, allowing him to climb to freedom.

To any normal person, a bear trapped in a skate park would be little more than a heartwarming newsbite; a quirky story to distract from another week of war and terrorism and kidnapped children living in back yards in Antioch. But not for the lazy tech columnist looking for inspiration.

For the lazy tech columnist looking for inspiration, a bear trapped in a skate park easily becomes a metaphor for the attitudes of certain Silicon Valley types who are trapped in their little Northern California bubble and don’t realise – or care – that there’s a world outside. And the ladder, I suppose, represents the columnist whose job it is to provide escape from the ignorance. Perfect. Another Saturday box ticked. Move on, nothing to see here.

But just as I was about to shut down Firefox and start scribbling skateboard jokes in my special columnist’s notepad, another headline caught my eye, this time from CNET. It read: ‘Bill would give president emergency control of Internet‘. Wow, I thought, this Bill guy sounds like a dick.

But no, as it turned out, the Bill in question is the Rockefeller-Snowe bill (S.773), notable both for being the first piece of US legislation to be named after a Fatboy Slim track and for the fact that it gives the President the power to shut down the Internet whenever he feels like it. Unsurprisingly, the 1000+ comments on the article are somewhat hostile, helped by a link from Matt Drudge who thoughtfully added his own scare quotes around the word ’emergency’.

‘This has nothing to do with “prorecting” [sic] the internet,’ wrote one commenter, ‘and everything to do with the power drunk, dicatorial [sic] Obama engaging in an unprecedendted [sic], unconstitutional power grab, orchestrated by his psychotic lunatic fringe “czars”.’

A bold statement, from that rare person who can spell ‘psychotic’ and ‘czars’ only to stumble over ‘protecting’.

‘Can you say, “Caesar Chavez?”‘, asked another, presumably rhetorically – while a third managed to wrangle two talking points into one meaningless one with: ‘Of course this goes along with the Obamacare nonsense that the government will have direct access to your bank accounts if this Obamacare BS becomes law. Hitler all over again’.

Well said, Sir. It’s a scandal that Adolf Hitler’s cybersecurity bill and healthcare proposals don’t get the criticism they deserve. But behind the megaditto rhetoric, some of the commenters do actually have a point. Unlike the previous administration’s PATRIOT act, which promoted freedom of information by wiretapping every man, woman and child in America, the Democrats’ Rockefeller-Snowe bill does sound pretty creepy and invasive.

All the President needs to do is declare a state of emergency and he’ll have the right to disconnect US citizens from the web, access their computers and even hack into the servers of private companies. That’s a horrendous power-grab for use in an unspecified emergency.

Or at least it would be. If that’s what the bill actually proposed.

In fact, in its current form, the worst the bill does is to clarify the President’s existing power to take limited control of communications networks in the case of national emergency or war. Like President Bush was able to order all planes to be grounded on September 11th, the bill would allow President Obama to ground parts of the Internet in similar circumstances.

But at this stage even those powers aren’t set in stone – the bill is still in draft form, having already been redrafted after early objections that the wording was too vague. And it’s still too vague, to the point where Larry Clinton, president of the Internet Security Alliance, says: “we cannot properly analyze, let alone support the bill.”

Indeed. What we really have here is a classic situation of an ambiguously-drafted bill, not even close to passing but which has the capacity to generate some pretty scary headlines. Last week it was death panels, this week it’s Obama stealing our Internets. Like a bear trapped in a skate park, critics – mainly of the President rather than the bill – are running round and round, without any kind of information ladder to help them out of their pit of paranoia.

And so, as ever, it falls to me to provide that missing ladder. Don’t ask me how (*cough* French hacker *cough*), but I’ve managed to get hold of a copy of a secret memo sent to Senators Rockefeller and Snowe by the Whitehouse, outlining exactly what powers Obama wants over the Internet, and why.

I think you’ll agree, it makes pretty interesting reading…

Hey Senators,

Please find below President Obama’s wishlist for taking control of the Internet. As promised, these powers will only be used in the event of a national ’emergency’ ;-)….

1) In the event of an ’emergency’ drop in poll numbers, the President needs to ensure that copies of Bill O’Reilly’s ‘Bold Fresh Piece of Humanity’ and Rush Limbaugh’s ‘The Way Things Ought To Be’ are automatically deleted from the nation’s Kindles and replaced with ‘The Audacity of Hope’. (Note: contrary to previous draft, there is now no need to extend this to Ann Coulter’s ‘Treason’ as it is already basically unreadable)

2) Should the US deficit pass 20 trillion, the President will need to take over private email servers to send an ’emergency’ 419 scam message to every American citizen. In these emails, the President will invite Americans to send him their bank account information, so that he might use it to process the fortune of his late uncle. Obviously, he will request their confidential co-operation in this matter, in exchange for a share of the proceeds.

3) Following the recent successful trial in France, the President requires the ability to turn the iPhones of any of America’s enemies into improvised exploding devices. Or ‘Freedom Phones’.

4) Should US unemployment levels continue to rise, the President needs the ability to order the shut down of World of Warcraft, forcing millions of Americans to go out and get fucking jobs.

5) In case of ’emergency’ bad press over a badly-drafted cybersecurity bill, the President will require unfettered access to Drudge Report servers to delete all ‘scare quotes’. This would prevent Drudge from using the headline ‘Bill would give president “emergency” control of Internet’ to suggest that Obama might just decide to nuke the entire web because he’s having a bad day.

6) If the bad press ’emergency’ continues, Obama will need to shore up support by ordering that the hashtag ‘#Ilovethepresident’ be appended to all tweets. In response to specific threats, he may also request that trending topics be replaced with a new, approved list including: #everythingisfine, #nothingtoseehere, #lookoverthere, #areyoukiddingme and #theotherguywasfarworse

Ok, that’s all for now! Let’s pass this thing, comrades!

Liebe Grüße,

Caesar Chavez

Policy Director, The White House

So there you have it. The bear of ignorance, rescued by the ladder of facts. My work here is done: let the mature, informed debate begin.