A pair of U.S. Representatives — one from each party — are proposing a law that would limit the president’s ability to shut down the internet at will. That may not strike you as an imminent threat, but federal police disappearing protestors into unmarked vans probably didn’t either, until a couple months ago. Let’s keep an open mind.
The president has the power under the Communications Act’s Section 706 to order the shutdown of some communications infrastructure in an emergency. While this was likely intended more for making sure official phone calls could get through in a national emergency, it’s possible that today it could be used as a measure to tamp down on protests and civil unrest, as we’ve seen in authoritarian regimes around the world.
The Preventing Unwarranted Communications Shutdowns Act, from Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA) and Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-VA), doesn’t remove this ability, but adds several layers of accountability to it.
In the first place, the bill would limit Section 706 use to when there is an “imminent and specific threat to human life or national security.” This prevents it from being put into play when there is a more general “threat” such as a major protest that might be too much for local police to handle.
The bill would also require the president to inform the top layer of government officials, including opposition leaders, of any shutdown. Ideally before, but it could be up to 12 hours later (and is illegal if not by then). Any shutdown ends automatically after 48 hours unless three-fifths of Congress vote to continue it.
The U.S. government would also be obligated to compensate providers and customers for the monetary value of the shutdown’s impact. This could end up being quite expensive, depending on how it’s calculated.
Lastly, a General Accountability Office report is required after every use of Section 706, and they get to the bottom of everything.
Whether this bill has any chance of becoming law is, like practically everything these days, anyone’s guess. But bipartisan laws limiting potential curtailments of civil rights by the White House are probably going to be fairly popular after the feds’ shenanigans over the summer.
At the very least it has some heavy hitters offering glowing blurbs:
FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel: “In the United States our laws are dated and they offer virtually unchecked power to the president over our wired and wireless communications when we face peril or national emergency. So kudos to Congresswoman Eshoo for legislation to modernize our laws and put in place safeguards to ensure that the internet stays on when we need it most.”
Former Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff: “A long overdue check and balance on a President’s authority to shut down or significantly curtail internet communication under the guise of an emergency.”
Former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler: “In a time of emergency, how the internet operates is in the hands of one person. Defining that authority in a focused manner and adding congressional oversight would bring an old statute into the digital age.”
Cybersecurity mainstay Bruce Schneier: “The Internet is critical infrastructure, and needs to be protected from politically motivated shut-downs. This bill helps ensures that the communications censorship that is increasingly common in other countries doesn’t happen in the US. It adds process, and checks and balances, to what is currently an ad hoc authority.”