Our world revolves around communication- whether that’s by face-to-face conversations, phone calls, social media discussions, and the like.
Communication is embedded in our beings. Our needs to stay connected go beyond staying in touch with our loved ones, but also we have an inherent need to know what’s going on around us.
Technology has shaped us to depend heavily on the internet and mobile devices, since they have become some of the most rapid means of delivering and receiving information. But unfortunately, we can’t rely on them as our primary means of communication.
There has been a lot of speculation about whether the government has the authority to regulate the internet and our cell phones, and believe it or not, they do!
Let’s break it down by answering some common questions.
What powers does the federal government have on communication?
The President of the United States has the power to shut down wired and wireless forms of communication if he believes there is a national emergency or it’s in the best interest of maintaining national security. This includes television, radio, telephone/ mobile phone networks, and the internet.
In brief, these are the laws granting such authority to the President.
- Communications Act of 1934: This act instituted the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to oversee and regulate telephone, telegraph, and radio communications.
- Section 706, disguised as U.S. Code § 606, is a key component of the Communications Act. It allows the President to take control of “any facility or station for wire communication during a state or threat of war.” While the internet is not run by the US government (more on that in a minute), this law would allow the President to issue an order requiring internet companies, as well as other means of communication, to shut down for an undefined period of time.
- Telecommunications Act of 1996: This was an important amendment to the Communications Act of 1934 which allowed any communication business to compete within the telephone and broadcasting market, thereby making telecommunications cheaper and more accessible to the public. This was also the first piece of legislation in the United States that addressed access and regulations to the internet.
You can learn more about these laws here.
The powers of the President concerning communication are ambiguous and outdated considering the way technology has advanced since these laws were enacted in 1934 and 1996.
Who controls the internet?
As of 2016, the US Government’s Commerce Department no longer controls the internet.
The internet is currently decentralized, meaning that it is regulated by multiple stakeholders including organizations, individual users, and corporations, all of which are under the ICANN umbrella.
ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, is a nonprofit organization that manages the internet by defining the policies of how websites should run. Their focus is to maintain a safe, stable, interoperable, and secure system for internet users. ICANN does not, however, control the content that gets published on the internet.
Can the internet be turned off?
There’s no magic switch that will turn off the internet but if the President deems it necessary, he can impose a shut down on internet providers to discontinue service.
Governments have done this all over the world. For instance:
- The Sudanese government shut off the internet to the country in response to a hashtag that was inciting an uprising.
- The Indian government shut off internet and telephone services nearly 100 times in 2019 to “prevent the spread of false or incendiary information that could cause violent protests.” They’re so used to shutting off the internet, that there’s even a website that tracks current shutdowns!
- The Indonesian government shut off their internet as a result of protests and civil disobedience.
There are countless more examples but this is enough to give you an idea of what can happen on US soil.
Can the President control social media?
The President can control the methods we use for communication but not the platforms on which we are active.
We need to remember that social media companies like Twitter, Facebook, Parler, etc are privately owned. Each of these independently controls what is published on their platforms- the President has no say on that.
On the other hand, if the internet is temporarily suspended, we’d lose the ability to access our social media accounts.
Here’s what to do if the government shuts down the internet
Communication is vital in times of crisis but there’s no way of predicting if or when the President will exercise his power. The only thing we can do is prepare for it.
This is what you can do now:
- Know which alternative methods of communication are available to you. Click here to learn how to stay in touch with loved ones if you don’t have a phone or internet connection.
- Determine where you will reunite with loved ones if communication means are cut off. If you have children in school or daycare, discuss a plan with your spouse about who will pick up the kids and bring them home.
- Have a 72-hour kit ready with enough food, water, and supplies.
Disasters like these can take us by surprise. Click here to start your family emergency plan today!
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