Intentional shutdowns of communications networks, apps, and digital services are among the biggest dangers to today’s freedom of expression.
They’ve been in the news for years, and you might have even experienced them yourself. Because the sad reality is they’re becoming more frequent.
Now, with Donald Trump in the White House, frequent public threats of cutting off various services don’t surprise anyone anymore.
But, in this bleak reality, there might be a glimmer of hope: the Preventing Unwanted Communications Shutdown Act.
This act could be an essential step in protecting your digital freedom, so let’s see what it’s all about.
The Preventing Unwanted Communications Shutdown Act
The U.S. bill is meant to limit section 706 of the Communications Act (1934). Section 706 allows the president to order internet shutdown at his own discretion. At this stage, the bill is just a proposal, but one can only hope it will receive enough votes to become a law.
Here are some of the bill’s key details:
- The president has to notify Congress and senior executive officials (the Pentagon, and the FCC) within 12 hours of a shutdown
- Shutdown ends automatically after 48 hours unless three-fifths of Congress vote to continue it.
- The U.S. government is obligated to compensate providers and customers for the monetary value of the shutdown’s impact.
Internet shutdowns are an extraordinary infringement of individual rights. Today I introduced bipartisan legislation w/ @RepMGriffith to limit presidential powers to control or shut down communications networks. https://t.co/O6zqOxfVZP— Rep. Anna G. Eshoo (@RepAnnaEshoo) October 22, 2020
Justifications of internet shutdown
When laws are outdated, too broad, or not transparent enough, it’s easier for governments to order internet shutdowns.
Now, the U.S. president has the authority to request the disruption of online communications as a means of national security. However, there is no restriction in terms of what the presidential administration considers “imminent and specific threat to human life or national security”. It could be protests, public marches, or other public events that might be too hard to handle for the police.
Cybersecurity specialist Bruce Schneier mentioned:
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 U.S. It adds process, and checks and balances, to what is currently an ad hoc authority.
The present American government has also suggested they may go further in keeping their control over communication companies, regardless of the results of the 2020 elections. Some fear that after the election, they could declare a national emergency because of “fraudulent” mail-in ballots.
Although it never happened in the history of the United States, historically, elections have been a common reason for shutdowns. The government in Iran used it during the 2009 elections and so did Myanmar in 2010, as the country faced its first elections in 20 years.
Internet closing fact sheet
So far, the Trump administration frequently tried to abuse power or misused the legal terms of the Communications Act.
Here are some examples:
- The intended limitation of Section 230, so companies like Facebook and Twitter gain immunity. This means they cannot be sued over their user-generated content.
- The order to the Federal Trade Commission to stop social media from “engaging in any deceptive acts or practices affecting commerce.”
- The suggestions to close “parts of the internet” to stop the spreading of extremists’ voices.
- The wish to shut down Twitter, as the company had “unchecked power to censor”.
- The decision to ban Tik Tok in the U.S.
The current American president always tried to twist decisions regarding online communications in his favor. He has clearly stated his plan is to fight terrorists and to safeguard the American people.
The costs and impacts that shutdowns could inflict on human rights are difficult to determine. They include the right to participate in civil and political, social, and cultural life, as well as damage the economy and the trust in democratic institutions.
Defining internet governance
Over the years, national security has been one of the most cited justifications for internet shutdowns globally. Countries such as Belarus, Pakistan, Myanmar, Turkey, or China have used it as an excuse to control population.
Supporters of the new U.S. bill noted that the “internet is, by design, decentralized and cannot be ‘shut down.” The practice of closing the internet could become a tool that restricts freedom of expression.
How can anyone govern the internet world and ensure human rights principles are protected?
Back in 1996, John Perry Barlow, the founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, tried to answer this question.
Here is a part of his speech at World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland:
We have no elected government, nor are we likely to have one, so I address you with no greater authority than that with which liberty itself always speaks. I declare the global social space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us. You have no moral right to rule us nor do you possess any methods of enforcement we have true reason to fear.
Have you ever experienced internet shut down, or have you been impacted in any way due to an app ban?
Let me know your story in the comments below.