A new bill introduced in the House this week would crimp the ability of the White House to curtail Internet access for U.S. citizens, and would put a short time limit on any service curtailment absent approval from Congress.
The bipartisan bill offered by Reps. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., and Morgan Griffith, R-Va., would limit the duration of any order from the President that would lead to Americans not being able to access the internet.
If the White House issued such an order, the legislation would require the President to notify Congress and senior executive branch officials within 12 hours of a shutdown, and require approvals from three-fifths of House and Senate members within 48 hours for the shutdown order to remain lawful.
The bill’s sponsors said that the Communications Act currently gives the President the ability to take control of U.S. communications facilities or equipment “in certain circumstances.” Those circumstances include protection against imminent and specific threats to human life or national security, and only if a communications shutdown would be the least restrictive means to accomplish that purpose.
At the same time, they noted that the “internet is, by design, decentralized and cannot be ‘shut down.’”
“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,” Rep. Eshoo said.
“Unchecked executive powers and the emergency authorities of the President under the Communications Act need to be revisited,” she added. “May there never be a situation where these authorities are needed, but if there is, the representatives of the people should decide the scope and extent of any shutdown, not any single individual.”
“The internet occupies a central place in American life and provides a venue to exercise many of our freedoms. Our Constitution and laws place checks on arbitrary and expansive executive power in other spheres, and the internet deserves the same protections,” Rep. Griffith said, adding, “This bill would create guardrails so that any internet shutdown would require the consent of the people through their elected representatives.”
The new House bill joins legislation debuted in the House and Senate last month that aims for the same goal – limited presidential authority to shut down telecommunications and internet services.