Two lawmakers, a Democrat and a Republican, have introduced a bill that would limit the President’s authority to shut down the internet. Congresswoman Anna G. Eshoo (D-CA) and Congressman Morgan Griffith (R-VA) announced the Preventing Unwarranted Communications Shutdown Act on Thursday.
The move comes just over a week before an election that many fear could be chaotic and contested.
Though it’s never happened in the United States, the President does have the power to shut down the internet according to 1934’s Communications Act. Section 706 of the act allows the President carte blanche to shutdown wireless communications “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, or in order to preserve the neutrality of the United States.”
The Preventing Unwarranted Communications Shutdowns Act would amend Section 706 and put limits on the President’s ability to turn off the internet. It still allows the President to cut off the internet, but narrows the circumstances under which they could to specific threats to human life or national security.
It also forces the President to notify the Pentagon, Congressional leadership, and the FCC within 12 hours of shutting down the internet. According to the Act, the shutdown would automatically cease should that notification not come. Even with notice, the order would expire in 48 hours unless extending it is approved by ⅗ of both the House and Senate, with at least ¼ of the minority party in each chamber voting to do so.
“The American people rely on the internet for nearly every aspect of their personal and professional lives and this dependence has only increased during the pandemic. As such, internet shutdowns are an extraordinary infringement of individual rights,” Eshoo said in a press release about the bill. “Unchecked executive powers and the emergency authorities of the President under the Communications Act need to be revisited.”
“This bill would create guardrails so that any internet shutdown would require the consent of the people through their elected representatives,” Griffith said in a press release.
Shutting down the internet is one of those authoritarian measures that feels like it could never happen in the United States. But it has happened in other countries, even large democracies. India cut off the internet for 7 months in its Muslim majority Kashmir region. In 2019, the Democratic Republic of Congo shut down the internet for 20 days after a contested election. Turkey frequently shutdowns portions of the internet.
Eshoo and Griffith announced the Preventing Unwarranted Communications Shutdown Act this afternoon and will file the bill for consideration on October 23, during a pro forma session of Congress.