Limiting the president’s power to shut down the internet

Right now, it’s alarmingly easy for the U.S. president to make the internet go dark. A new bill aims to change that.
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This post was originally published on November 3, 2020.

A law written 86 years ago, when telephones were still somewhat novel, has inadvertently given the U.S. president the ability to shut the internet down indefinitely, and without requiring Congress’s approval.

Last week, in the run-up to the 2020 presidential elections, a bipartisan bill was brought to Congress with the aim of updating the legislation. The Preventing Unwarranted Communications Shutdown Act would make it more difficult for the president to shut down the internet.

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‘An extraordinary infringement of rights’

In its current form, Section 706 of the 1934 Communications Act states:

Upon proclamation by the President that there exists war or a threat of war, or a state of public peril or disaster or other national emergency … the President … (may) suspend or amend the rules and regulations applicable to any or all facilities or stations for wire communication within the jurisdiction of the United States. 

In other words, it is possible for the U.S. president to declare a national emergency, invoke emergency powers, take control of all means of wired communication—including the internet—and suspend them.

The new bill proposed by California Congresswoman Anna Eshoo (who happens to represent Silicon Valley), argues that an internet shutdown “would be an extraordinary infringement of rights,” and to prevent its seismic effect on U.S. citizens and the world at large, “it should only be allowed in an extreme circumstance, and only with the consent of a supermajority the representatives of the people.”

The Preventing Unwarranted Communications Shutdowns Act essentially wants to limit the president’s range of reasons for shutting down the internet to “ones necessary to protect against an imminent and specific threat to human life or national security if such action is narrowly tailored and is the least restrictive means for the purpose.”

The act would also force the president to notify congressional leaders, senior executive heads, and the Federal Communications Commission within 12 hours of ordering a shutdown, which can only happen with 60% approval of both the House and Senate, and 25% of the minority party’s, in order to extend the shutdown after 48 hours. A Government Accountability Office Report would be required, as well as compensation to providers and their customers.

Will the internet shut down?

Internet shutdowns, partial and total, have occurred at greater frequency in the past few years, primarily in Asia and East and Central Africa. In the past year, shutdowns have been reported in Ethiopia, Iran, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and, the worst offender, India, among other countries. Internet freedoms have been declining around the world; meanwhile, the UN Human Rights Council regards intentionally preventing access to information online as a human rights violation.

Shutdowns are an extreme form of internet censorship most commonly used by governments during times of protests and elections in an attempt to control social agitation by suppressing information. The emergence of Covid-19 has also led to increased censorship.

Total internet shutdowns in countries, even in oppressive ones, are rare. What we observe more often is a partial shutdown of social media and communication apps during political flare-ups. In the U.S. and Europe, shutdowns are unheard of.

That doesn’t mean it’s impossible that it could happen in the U.S., though (it’s 2020, after all). And if it does, you’ll need to know how to survive it.

Also read: Laws that threaten internet freedom around the world

Ceinwen focused on digital privacy, censorship, and surveillance, and has interviewed leading figures in tech.