Growing Fears that Trump Could Seize the Internet

October 1st, 2020 - by Eric Boehm / Reason

Rand Paul, Tulsi Gabbard, Thomas Massie, Ron Wyden Join Forces To Unplug the President’s ‘Internet Kill Switch’

Eric Boehm / Reason

 (September 25, 2020) — Civil libertarians on both sides of the aisle and in both chambers of Congress have joined forces to call for canceling a little-known executive power.

Under the broad terms of a 1934 federal law, the president has the authority to seize emergency control of almost any electronic device in the country.

Sens. Rand Paul (R–Ky.), Ron Wyden (D–Ore), and Gary Peters (D–Mich.), along with Reps. Tulsi Gabbard (D–Hawaii) and Thomas Massie (R–Ky.), introduced bills this week to abolish the so-called “Internet kill switch” — a sweeping emergency executive authority over communications technology that predates World War II.

“No president from either party should have the sole power to shut down or take control of the Internet or any other of our communication channels during an emergency,” Paul argued in a statement announcing the Unplug the Internet Kill Switch Act.

The bill aims to revoke Section 706 of the Communications Act of 1934. When that law was passed, there was no Internet. But the broad language included in Section 706 means that it could be invoked today to give a president “nearly unchallenged authority to restrict access to the Internet, conduct email surveillance, control computer systems, and cell phones,” Gabbard explained in her statement on the bill.

It’s even worse than that. As Michael Socolow wrote in Reason last year, the law is so broad that it effectively gives the president the ability to commandeer any electronic device that emits radiofrequency transmissions.

These days, Socolow noted, that includes “everything from your implanted heart device to the blow dryer for your hair. It includes your electric exercise equipment, any smart device (such as a digital washing machine), and your laptop — basically everything in your house that has electricity running through it.”

Since the United States is technically engaged in 35 ongoing “national emergencies” — thanks in large part to an executive branch that has stripped those words of their meaning — we should probably be grateful that President Donald Trump hasn’t yet reached for this power. He’s already invoked Cold War–era laws to impose greater executive control over global commerce in the name of “national security” and has declared illegal immigration to be a national emergency as a political maneuver to redirect funding for a border wall.

Like many presidents before him, Trump seems willing to use whatever powers Congress has foolishly granted to the executive branch to the fullest extent. Congress should claw back what it can.

“With so many Americans relying on the Internet to do everything from online banking to telehealth to education, it’s essential that federal law reflect today’s digital world, not the analog world of World War II,” Carl Szabo, general counsel for NetChoice, a nonprofit that advocates for a free and open Internet, tells Reason.

How much the federal government could actually do to shut down the Internet remains a subject of debate. The very nature of the net—a diffuse network of interconnected computers and servers — makes it virtually impossible for the government to flip a literal on/off switch or push a stereotypical big red button to cut off all Americans.

Sen. Paul — “If you give government an inch, it takes ten miles, and this has been vividly illustrated by the surveillance state’s overreaches in a time of seemingly endless war. No president from either party should have the sole power to shut down or take control of the Internet or any other of our communication channels during an emergency, and I urge Congress to follow our lead and unite to pass this bipartisan legislation.”

Sen. Wyden — “The internet is far too essential to nearly every part of our democratic system — everything from work, to school and free speech — for any president to have unilateral power to turn it off. It’s more important than ever to protect our core liberties against overreach by the executive branch, so I’m glad to be working with Senator Paul and Peters to make sure the Internet is protected against political interference.”

Sen. Peters — “Whether it is learning how to protect yourself against the current pandemic, staying in touch with loved ones, or accessing medical and financial information — the Internet is a critical source of information for Michiganders and all Americans. This bipartisan legislation will help update our laws and ensure that no President has the power to unilaterally limit access to internet service for political reasons, without preventing the government from effectively responding to actual emergencies or attacks.”

Rep. Gabbard — “The oath that I took as a Soldier and as a Member of Congress was to support and defend our Constitution. The freedoms enshrined in our Constitution cannot be taken for granted. Our legislation would fix a WWII-era law that gives the president nearly unchallenged authority to restrict access to the Internet, conduct email surveillance, control computer systems and cell phones. No President should have the power to ignore our freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution and violate our civil liberties and privacy by declaring a national emergency.”

Rep. Massie — “When governments around the world turn off Internet access, they do significant harm to their national economies and their citizen’s civil rights. This bipartisan bill will ensure that no future American president can unilaterally trip an ‘Internet kill switch.’ Americans do not have to accept the premise that one person can deprive them of their 1st Amendment rights by flipping a switch.”