Discussion over a "kill switch" that would paralyze the Internet has flared up in Germany and Austria after the Egyptian government temporarily suspended Internet service in that country amid the anti-government protests there.
The Chaos Computer Club (CCC), a well-known German hacker organization which advocates for transparency as well as free access to computers, said it was concerned that the German government was preparing its own version of the "kill switch."
"We are observing with concern the efforts in Germany to introduce an Internet kill switch here as well," Andreas Bogk of the CCC said in a television interview on Tuesday.
He pointed to a recent amendment to a security law in the state of Rhineland-Palatinate which would allow authorities, after getting a judge's approval, to interrupt communication networks to prevent, for example, the detonation of a bomb using a mobile telephone.
The debate was further inflamed by a report in the magazine "Futurezone" which said the Austrian government was working on its own kill switch.
But authorities in both Germany and Austria firmly denied that they are working on any kind of system that would knock out the Internet in the event of some kind of uprising or other emergency situation.
"There are no plans on the part of the federal government to introduce a so-called 'kill switch'," a spokesperson for the German interior ministry said.
Austria was also quick to deny the existence any kind of government strategy to cut off Internet access if need be.
"That would be indefensible from a democratic standpoint," Leo Szemeliker, spokesman for Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann, said.
"In addition, it would require enormous technical effort that runs against the basic structure of the Internet."
However, despite the Internet's web of connections, Egyptian authorities were able to largely cut the country off from the global network on Friday. Observers said that shows that it is still possible to isolate people when telecom providers are few, and they are compliant with a state's decrees.
While there are many service providers offering access in Egypt, all of the infrastructure is controlled by four companies – Link Egypt, Vodafone/Raya, Telecom Egypt and Etisalat Misr.
In such immature markets, with few providers, a slowdown or even cut-off of Internet service is relatively easy.
"Essential parts of the infrastructure, such as central switching nodes, were likely turned off," Manfred Breul said, head of the communication and technology department at BITKOM, Germany's leading high-tech umbrella group.
New threats, new measures
Some in the West have expressed worries that governments might use terrorism or other threats to crack down on the Internet and make contingency plans about possibly shutting it off in a time of crisis.
While it remains in the realm of speculation, and has been met with official denials, the debate still has free-speech advocates worried.
"There is always a tendency to say that we face special threats now and need to push through (laws) that we weren't able to before," Konstantin von Notz, a Green party parliamentarian, told Deutsche Welle. "We have to stand up to that and defend the rights that we have."
He agreed with those who say that if, for example, it was found that a mobile telephone was going to be used to remotely detonate a bomb, that phone should be blocked on the network.
"That is, if there is a concrete, individual danger," he said. "But if we don't have that, and then have a generalized shut-off of the telephone network, I find that highly problematic from a constitutional standpoint."
German law does allow for limitations around freedom of expression and freedom of information, normally guaranteed in the German constitution, in exceptional cases. But it depends on whether there is a compelling reason for those restrictions.
"You can limit rights and even an Internet site, but you have to have a proper justification," Flemming Moos, a Hamburg-based lawyer specializing in IT law, told Deutsche Welle. "Besides, from a technical standpoint, it would be very difficult to do what they did in Egypt here."
Last summer, new cyber-security legislation was introduced in the US Congress that would give the president the power to shut down parts of the Internet. While it hit criticism when introduced, the Egyptian experience has spurred even more opposition and put its sponsors on the defensive.
"The steps the Mubarak government took last week to shut down Internet communications in Egypt were, and are, totally wrong," US Senator Susan Collins of Maine, one of the sponsors, said. "His actions were clearly designed to limit internal criticisms of his government."
The bill would give the president power to shut down Internet systems related only to critical infrastructure, such as the power grid, in the event of an attack that would "cause national or regional catastrophic events."
But activists and civil liberties groups have slammed the proposal, saying its gives the president too much power and lacks oversight.
Besides concerns about basic freedoms, the economic fall-out in the West in the wake of an Internet shut-down would be enormous. While governments succeed in stopping Twitter postings or Facebook updates, they might also succeed in bringing their economies to their knees.
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development said on Thursday that Egypt's five-day clampdown on the Internet and cell phone networks cost it around $90 million. The think tank added that the long-term impact to the country could be even greater, since foreign companies could be less likely to come to Egypt fearing that its telecommunications networks are not stable.
Author: Kyle James
Editor: Stuart Tiffen