Bipartisan legislation introduced in the House and Senate last week aims to reduce executive branch power over telecommunications and the internet by preventing the president from using emergency powers to shut those services down.
The Unplug the Internet Kill Switch Act of 2020 would strike a portion of Section 706 in the Communications Act of 1934 giving the executive office full control over communications when a president deems necessary “in the interest of national security and defense.” Sens. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Reps. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, and Thomas Massie, R-Ky., are leading the bill in their respective chambers.
“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,” Sen. Paul said of the legislation. “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.”
The Communications Act of 1934 – which established the Federal Communications Commission – is alarming the bill sponsors because law’s communications “kill switch” provisions could be applied to emails, text messages, the internet, and other telecommunications if a president chooses to invoke the war power authority. Striking this provision, the lawmakers explained, also would help curb government surveillance and control of communications channels.
“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,” Rep. Gabbard explained. “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.”
S. 4646 has been referred to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation and H.R. 8336 is heading to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.