Comment It's troubling how in the past few years some countries have, with increasing zeal, blocked off their own citizens from the internet for gross authoritarian reasons.
Ever since the Egyptian government demonstrated it was possible to take a nation offline – something that most countries had assumed for more or less impossible – the practice has taken off.
Iraq persistently cuts off internet access during school exams; Iran recently cut internet access while it brutally stamped out an uprising; Cameroon cut off his tech hub over government protests; and perhaps more egregiously and recently, India has killed internet access to the disputed territory of Kashmir for six months, only recently lifting the blockade.
This increasingly common tactic was the subject of a keynote on Tuesday morning in Washington DC by FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel at the State of the Net conference. Naturally enough, she condemned countries closing down the internet, and argued that it was time for the United States to speak up.
And then she took a dark turn. “While we’re at it, we need to update our laws too,” she told the assembled policy wonks, politicians, and lobbyists, “because 47 USC Section 606 gives the president power to shut down communications without clear judicial or legislative review.”
And she is, of course, right. The President of the United States does have extraordinary powers in the event of war, and one of them is the ability to “suspend or amend, for such time as he may see fit, the rules and regulations applicable to any or all stations or devices capable of emitting electromagnetic radiations.”
It goes further than that: the President can “direct that such communications as in his judgment may be essential to the national defense and security shall have preference or priority with any carrier.” And he may “give these directions at and for such times as he may determine, and may modify, change, suspend, or annul them and for any such purpose.”
There are more clauses and that all amount to pretty much the same thing: the President can decide to do pretty much what he wants with communications if he decides it is “essential to the national defense and security.”
In the context of an increasingly partisan and ridiculous Washington, this could be seen as yet another example of over-the-top bluster that no one, not even the speaker, believes to be true but as one tech wonk, Harold Feld of Public Knowledge noted immediately on Twitter:
“I normally think this sort of talk is alarmist, but Rosenworcel is one of the most rational policy wonks I know. If she is worried, I pay attention.”
This is, after all, the same week in which a top lawyer argued in the Senate that the President cannot be removed from power, not even impeached, for an abuse of power – and members of his party lined up behind that argument.
As been made abundantly clear, the President is not only willing to do things that previous presidents would never have considered, he appears to actively seek out opportunities to use the power of his office to strengthen his own power and chances of re-election.
Does Donald Trump have the legal authority to demand that mobile phone networks be shut down? Yes. That Twitter and Facebook stopped sending updates? Yes. That the internet itself be suspended? Yes. Does he has the same authority to push his own messages? Yes, it is literally written into US law.
Is it possible to do so? Yes, it is. No matter how much we wish it weren’t true. No matter how much internet engineers will argue that they can route around such efforts, the truth is that the US government has the ability to bring everything to a grinding halt for 99 per cent of the country. And those companies will obey such an order, especially if granted on a temporary basis using presidential authority.
Which leads to the question: would Trump do it? And the answer: yes, of course, he would at least try to float the idea if he thought it would benefit him. The President has yet to accept a single instance, theoretical or otherwise, of where his authority is limited. He has literally argued that he is not capable of committing a crime while President.
If the polls swing against Donald Trump, if he feels his presidency is under threat, does anyone seriously imagine that he wouldn’t do anything and everything within his power to retain his position?
Rosenworcel’s warning is far from the first time that this theoretical threat has been posed. In March 2018, another policy wonk, Berin Szoka, gave the exact same warning during a speech. A year before that another lobbyist warning on Twitter that the same powers “grant POTUS vast powers to shut down communications networks.”
This time last year, the same Harold Feld as earlier noted on Twitter that “it is a sign of the time that I have been asked about 47 USC 606 more in the last two years than in the entire rest of my 20-year career.”
And that’s not forgetting the serious push back in 2011 – shortly after the Egyptian shutdown – by some in Congress to pass legislation that would specifically lead to the development of an “internet kill switch.”
It was laughed at at the time but the sad truth is that didn’t progress in some part because experts argued that it wasn’t really necessary to have a switch: a presidential order to communications companies would result in the same thing without the need for a new law. Bill Gates concurred.
In his own words
And let’s not forget Donald Trump himself, during the presidential primaries, back in December 2015, long before he entered the White House. “I would certainly be open to closing areas where we are at war with somebody,” he said on stage. “I sure as hell don't want to let people that want to kill us and kill our nation use our Internet.”
So, yes, it’s a real possibility. And now we have an FCC Commissioner – not a lobbyist or a policy wonk talking during a panel session or in theoretical tones – an actual commissioner who would be among the first to see such a presidential order on stage during one of the most significant internet policy conferences that takes place each year, on stage, as part of a keynote speech saying “we need to change this law.”
“Even temporary disruption could create havoc with elections or people’s lives. We need a re-examination of the broad language of 47 USC 606 and we need to create legal guardrails,” she warned.
If you can’t imagine waking up one morning in October or November this year to find Twitter comprises solely of a series of messages from @realDonaldTrump, complete with retweets, and switch on the news to find that the President addressing the nation from the Oval Office on every channel, well then you haven’t been paying attention.
And it would all be legally just fine. ®