A centrally controlled switch for any type of information—news, infotainment, plain entertainment or otherwise—is a very bad idea. It can deny consumers the choice to be informed and increase subjectivity in censorship.
When Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray’s body was being taken for the final rites, for instance, cable operators in Mumbai city switched off or killed the infotainment and entertainment channels. The city cable operators said they did it out of respect for the late leader. But hapless consumers were not party to the decision.
Cable operators, thankfully, could do little about direct-to-home (DTH) transmissions. But, technically, even DTH operators can switch off telecasts if they decide or governments dictate so. Fortunately, the Internet that has no one-click button was spared. But attempts are being made to throttle this channel too. Many countries around the world filter the Web in varying degrees. According to the Google Transparency Report website, India sought confidential Web user details in 2,319 cases from it in the first six months of 2012.
Blocking Internet access with a simple flip of the switch, called “kill switch”, is also becoming a reality. In January 2011, the Egyptian government, with a single flip of a switch, blocked its 80 million citizens from accessing the Internet or using mobile phones. Ironically, on that very day, US Republican senator Susan Collins floated a “kill switch” Bill which, if and when approved, would give the US president similar powers.
The move was introduced even as the US was urging Egypt not to choke the Internet. The senators who favoured the Bill reasoned the move would help protect the US during cyber wars. Fortunately, the Internet cannot really be switched off because it has no centre but at the nation-state level, it is possible to envisage a situation where traffic passing through critical switches is, in an emergency, filtered and shaped, Peter Sommer (London School of Economics) and Ian Brown (Oxford Internet Institute) cautioned in a contribution to the OECD project, Future Global Shocks.
Besides, given the Internet’s mesh network design, which makes centralized control difficult, netizens can bypass blocks by using proxies such as TOR (a network of virtual tunnels which offer anonymity and circumvent network filters), ham radio links and satellite communications.
Is blocking Internet access with a “kill switch” fair?