Internet

Rand Paul, Tulsi Gabbard, Thomas Massie, Ron Wyden Join Forces To Unplug the President's 'Internet Kill Switch'

Under the broad terms of a 1934 federal law, the president has the authority to seize emergency control of almost any electronic device in the country.

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Civil libertarians on both sides of the aisle and in both chambers of Congress have joined forces to call for canceling a little-known executive power.

Sens. Rand Paul (R–Ky.), Ron Wyden (D–Ore), and Gary Peters (D–Mich.), along with Reps. Tulsi Gabbard (D–Hawaii) and Thomas Massie (R–Ky.), introduced bills this week to abolish the so-called "internet kill switch"—a sweeping emergency executive authority over communications technology that predates World War II.

"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," Paul argued in a statement announcing the Unplug the Internet Kill Switch Act.

The bill aims to revoke Section 706 of the Communications Act of 1934. When that law was passed, there was no internet. But the broad language included in Section 706 means that it could be invoked today to give a president "nearly unchallenged authority to restrict access to the internet, conduct email surveillance, control computer systems, and cell phones," Gabbard explained in her statement on the bill.

It's even worse than that. As Michael Socolow wrote in Reason last year, the law is so broad that it effectively gives the president the ability to commandeer any electronic device that emits radiofrequency transmissions. These days, Socolow noted, that includes "everything from your implanted heart device to the blow dryer for your hair. It includes your electric exercise equipment, any smart device (such as a digital washing machine), and your laptop—basically everything in your house that has electricity running through it."

Since the United States is technically engaged in 35 ongoing "national emergencies"—thanks in large part to an executive branch that has stripped those words of their meaning—we should probably be grateful that President Donald Trump hasn't yet reached for this power. He's already invoked Cold War–era laws to impose greater executive control over global commerce in the name of "national security" and has declared illegal immigration to be a national emergency as a political maneuver to redirect funding for a border wall.

Like many presidents before him, Trump seems willing to use whatever powers Congress has foolishly granted to the executive branch to the fullest extent. Congress should claw back what it can.

"With so many Americans relying on the internet to do everything from online banking to telehealth to education, it's essential that federal law reflect today's digital world, not the analog world of World War II," Carl Szabo, general counsel for NetChoice, a nonprofit that advocates for a free and open internet, tells Reason.

How much the federal government could actually do to shut down the internet remains a subject of debate. The very nature of the net—a diffuse network of interconnected computers and servers—makes it virtually impossible for the government to flip a literal on/off switch or push a stereotypical big red button to cut off all Americans.

But the Department of Homeland Security does have protocols for shutting down wireless networks during an emergency, which the agency argues could be used to stop a terrorist from detonating a remote bomb. Given that authoritarian leaders in other countries have shut down wide swaths of internet access during periods of unrest, it's not unfathomable that something similar could happen here.

"When governments around the world turn off internet access, they do significant harm to their national economies and their citizens' civil rights," Massie noted in a statement.

In the midst of an election season in which partisan lines have grown more rigid than ever and when neither major political party seems all that interested in pro-freedom policies, this team-up of libertarian-friendly lawmakers is a little heartwarming. Gabbard, Massie, Paul, and Wyden may not find many allies in Congress on this issue—and, indeed, they don't always agree with one another—but this is one of those issues that might not seem to matter much until suddenly it really does. It's better not to wait for that moment.

"The internet," Wyden declared in a statement, "is far too essential to nearly every part of our democratic system—everything from work, to school and free speech—for any president to have unilateral power to turn it off."

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Internet Congress Executive Power Rand Paul Ron Wyden Tulsi Gabbard Thomas Massie

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100 responses to “Rand Paul, Tulsi Gabbard, Thomas Massie, Ron Wyden Join Forces To Unplug the President's 'Internet Kill Switch'

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  2. “The internet,” Wyden declared in a statement, “is far too essential to nearly every part of our democratic system—everything from work, to school and free speech—for any president to have unilateral power to turn it off.”

    That power is supposed to remain in the hands of Alphabet and Mark Zuckerberg.

    1. Disabling the actual physical links of the Internet is certainly scarier than control over popular platforms, however problematic the latter may be.

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    2. “That power is supposed to remain in the hands of Alphabet and Mark Zuckerberg.”

      Weak. Even The Facebook and Google can’t turn off the Internets.

      1. True. They can just decide what shows up on major portions of it.

        1. They can’t even do that.

          Facebook is one site. They have a large audience but Facebook is not a ‘major portion’ of the internet. Its like saying a stadium is a major portion of a city – there’s a big audience.

          1. Facebook is the scourge of democracy. Their super computers and AI are manipulating the actions of ordinary citizens. It has split this nation in half selecting with great precision what you see and it’s all done in the name of money. Facebook’s money means more to Zuckerberg than American democracy itself. Don’t believe me? Just take a look at Netflix’s The Social Dilemma. You will hear in the words of people who actually developed Facebook, Google, WhatsApp and Instagram. They quit over ethical concerns and their outlook is that these platforms need to be regulated like TV, movies, radio etc. They have carte blanche to do anything they want. Fines don’t hurt them. Facebook was fined $5 billion dollars for the part they played in the Russian interference in 2016. It was nothing to them. They tell us they’ll do a better job. That’s not a solution. We need the force of law to stop what will eventually split this country beyond recognition or repair. Civil war is the direction we are heading.

        2. But they can’t cut off internet access to my bank account or my money.

          Trump and every president going forward in both parties would have ZERO issues doing it. Especially once they outlaw cash and have our balls in a sling. Antebellum plantation owners didn’t have that much power over their slaves…because in this electronic plantation, there isn’t even a means of escape.

          They are all ethically bereft megalomaniacal pieces of shit.

      2. I give Trump (or other’s) ability to shut down the internet about a 5.5/10 (How long of a run up did the Obama Administration have before the ACA webpage went live?)

        I give Google/FB/Twitter an 8.5/10. 9.25/10 if we consider shutting down only the parts they don’t control as effectively shut down.

        1. It’s easier to destroy things than to build things. And government’s had a lot of practice at destroying things over the years.

          1. Doesn’t change what I said. As long as we aren’t talking about killing people, the market’s always been better at destroying faster than government with/or without practice.

            In less than a decade, Netflix and Youtube had obliterated the movie rental business and mortally wounded the cable bundling business. Something the government had been trying to do for over 2 decades.

      3. (posted two links, so it went into moderation hell, here’s a one-link version)

        First of all, that was just snark. However, they certainly can control a large amount of the public square, and who can show up on it. And I use public square not in the legal sense, but the practical sense.

        Also, as we’ve seen, the backbone providers can certainly nudge things more directly. If the certificate authorities stop doing business with you because of your icky alt-right ways…

        When you have certificate authorities and other ‘backbone’ providers refusing to do businesses with internet sites because of their perceived icky content, that’s a very serious situation. Cert authorities (to name just one example) should be content neutral. If you’re a business in good standing and you pay the fee, operate lawfully etc, then the certificate authority, or traffic management company should be 100% content neutral.

        1. Only insofar as the public has decided that the public square is on Facebook.

          The public square is just where the people have chosen to congregate. If they choose to go elsewhere then the public square is now somewhere else.

          1. “Only insofar as the public has decided that the public square is on Facebook.”

            It’s just one “public square,” which is really a bad analogy since it’s private property.

            Kids have fled The Facebook, and its days are numbered. Guess that’s why they bought Instagram, which is also not where the hip kids are anymore.

            1. You’re conflating Facebook the platform with Facebook the brand. Facebook owns a number of very popular social networking apps and platforms which are still going strong.

          2. That’s why I defined it not in the prickly legal sense, but the practical sense. Right now, the majority of the public congregates on platforms owned and controlled by Google and/or Facebook, with a few other exceptions such as Twitter.

            I have no illusions that this outsized market share will eventually fade as new ways of “internetting” will arise, just as I argued against government sanctions against Microsoft back in the 90s.

            1. Also, the other sites that utilize google or facebook or logins and identity verification. More than just their own directly controlled sites would be affected.

      4. “Weak. Even The Facebook and Google can’t turn off the Internets.”

        I think you miss the point. Facebook and Google ARE the internet. When people talk about expanding the reach of the internet, they mean more customers for those two, and a few more.

        1. I hate FB and Google, especially Google. Ditto MSFT and the others – data mining is where the money is, and we are the product.

          But they are NOT the internet.

          And I don’t for one second believe that these companies are not working for the surveillance state, and all this grandstanding and gaslighting is just that…it’s a big circle jerk between the tech giants and the CIA/NSA.

    3. “The Alphabet” does not control the off switch. Not even close. They may provide most of the content, but the wires and backbone switches that make it all work are elsewhere.

      TCP/IP was designed to route around damage. It still does. The only thing that can take it down is government by dismantling it. Sure, a monopoly can, but there’s no monopoly. Just leftists wringing their hands about corporations.

      1. <a href="https://theintercept.com/2018/06/25/att-internet-nsa-spy-hubs/It’s also important that we not forget this.

        While this is about spying and not control, the method they are able to achieve the ability to spy is important. Very important.

        The NSA considers AT&T to be one of its most trusted partners and has lauded the company’s “extreme willingness to help.” It is a collaboration that dates back decades. Little known, however, is that its scope is not restricted to AT&T’s customers. According to the NSA’s documents, it values AT&T not only because it “has access to information that transits the nation,” but also because it maintains unique relationships with other phone and internet providers. The NSA exploits these relationships for surveillance purposes, commandeering AT&T’s massive infrastructure and using it as a platform to covertly tap into communications processed by other companies.

        When you have this kind of ‘partnership’, this is HOW you set an off switch. My point about Alphabet was merely snark. We need to be very wary about the depth of ‘partnerships’ between these mega corporations.

        I don’t really believe Alphabet will ‘turn off’ the internet… because there is no ‘off switch’. There are, however, a couple of dozen major chokepoints and central providers which can easily be exploited with enough will to do so.

        1. There are, however, a couple of dozen major chokepoints and central providers which can easily be exploited with enough will to do so.

          Not to mention that if the last 2 decades of the information age has taught us nothing (assuming we didn’t learn the lesson before), it’s that it’s far more powerful and lucrative to control what messages get transmitted and what messages don’t than it is to simply prevent all messages from being transmitted.

          I agree that the President shouldn’t legally have the power. Pragmatically and wilfully I don’t think he (or Google/FB/Twitter) do and, as indicated above, the Pres. is, IMO, far less capable than the alternatives.

        2. Room 641A

          1. Pretty much this. You think anyone in government would kill the internet? Why, it’s their best surveillance tool that they already have access to at the most basic level? Facebook et. al. is like a free hand job to the government.

            The same level of access to your life that you give Google and Facebook is the level of access you give the NSA.

      2. They may provide most of the content, but the wires and backbone switches that make it all work are elsewhere.

        Google owns something like 10% of American and 3% worldwide of submarine cable miles. Agreed, they’re far from holding the off switch for every last mile of cable, but it they wanted to shut off a considerable amount of traffic and/or fuck with the rest of it (at both the hardware and software level), they absolutely could.

        1. Even the cables aren’t as important as the switching centers at their ends. An alarming amount of traffic chokes through only a handful of switching centers controlled by giants such as AT&T, Verizon etc. At least domestically in the US. However, AT&T has operations globally and is in partnership with many foreign governments. This is why the NSA is able to hoover up pretty much 99% of all internet communications.

  3. Inter arma enim silent leges.

    The laws no longer matter.

    We are at war with a communist uprising. The law means nothing if we are unwilling to impose it by force upon this government.

    Impose the Bill of Rights now or this law means absolutely nothing, tomorrow.

    1. You don’t even know who your enemy really is.

      Who the fuck is going to enforce the CONstitution? The republicans? Communists…fascists…whatever – just a means of choosing sides between two teams that are out to fuck us all raw.

      It’s over dude.

    2. You don’t want to take away the first amendment rights of communists, you just want to butcher them in their beds.

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  6. I thought the original idea of the internet was to prevent it being shut down by providing for redundancy and re-routing. How did we end up with the exact opposite situation?

    1. That was the idea.

    2. A great many of the larger problems with the internet (spoofing, encryption, poisoning, etc.) were based around the assumption that people/nodes on the network were essentially secure. The idea was that you couldn’t destroy it exogenously by blowing up any one or even several nodes. The idea that no one internally couldn’t manually shut down all the nodes wasn’t even a consideration.

    3. I thought the original idea of the internet was to prevent it being shut down by providing for redundancy and re-routing. How did we end up with the exact opposite situation?

      It was never in that situation. Libertarians and other internet utopianists believed we were in that situation. There are a limited number of backbone providers and chokepoints. There are myriad ways in which any government can make internet life… difficult if they decide they want to.

    4. That idea still works. It would be task for hte government to shut it down. But it could declare it illegal. At that point you have several dozen companies having to choose what side of the law they want to be on, whether they want stand up to the Federal government. Smaller firms would, but the bigger firms are too used to not making waves, to keeping their heads down.

      TCP/IP protocol was designed to withstand war, it was not designed to withstand centralized political rule.

      1. The reality is the government would never turn off the internet because it needs the internet. The ‘internet off switch’ is really a euphemism for describing the right to ‘control’.

        1. Well, yeah: actually turning off the internet would be political suicide if any politician were to do it, which is why they don’t. (I suspect a lot of states’ constitutions and laws provide similar authorities to their governors.) If President Trump or Governor Newsom were to order an actual internet shutdown, pretty much everybody in the country/state would be rioting in the streets within 24 hours, with the police and military siding with the rioters since their internet access would be gone too.

          I remember in the first episode of the anime SaiKano (basically a near-future story of World War III as told from several civilians’ and foot soldiers’ points of view), when one of the characters casually mentions the government has shut down the internet and TV’s mostly just doing reruns these days. I was saying “What!? No way could the government get away with shutting down the internet! When was this anime published?” I checked the original air dates online: 2002! The writers must not have noticed (or maybe were actively trying to ignore) just how indispensable to everyone the internet was already getting to be by then.

    5. Because the internet became powerful. So people who are focused on grasping ever more power then became interested in controlling it.

      And he who can destroy a thing, controls that thing.

  7. It would have been helpful if Eric had described the actual law they are talking about. Here is a link. The President’s war power to give certain communications priority seems to be the critical provision.

    https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/USCODE-2018-title47/html/USCODE-2018-title47-chap5-subchapVI.htm

    1. Progressive SCOTUS ideologues might be able to read the power to commandeer people’s hair dryers into that statute in service of chocolate Jesus. It’s not a realistic risk with Trump, and with RBG’s replacement.

      1. I doubt even (may God forbid it!) a President Kamala Harris and a packed 13-member Supreme Court with 7 reliably far-left judges sitting on it would actually dare to pull that trigger. As I say, if they ever did, everybody would be rioting in the streets in 24 hours, and the police and military would join the angry mobs in dragging the offending politicians from their seats, beating and slashing them to death, and crucifying their mutilated remains up over the doors of every government building as a warning to anybody else who might ever think to try such a thing.

        1. Boy…you paint such a tempting picture. Maybe we should let the government turn off the internet…

    2. What happened to net neutrality?

  8. This should pass unanimously, and would if our legislators were competent.

    It will fail miserably, by something like an 80-20 (Senate) and 395-40 (House) vote.

    1. EDIT: “if our legislators were competent” should be “if our legislators were acting in our best interest”. Also, this should never have been put into law in the first place, and wouldn’t have if…our legislators were acting in our best interest.

  9. Civil libertarians on both sides of the aisle…

    I wasn’t aware that there was such a thing.

    1. It’s propaganda. In any other context Boehm and/or Reason would almost certainly (and probably has) referred to Paul and Massie as libertarian-leaning Republicans. Wyden’s overtly a pandering quasi-socialist shill and Gabbards’ big flaw was her socially conservative family associations and the fact that she seemingly refused to disavow herself from them.

      Civil libertarianism isn’t a coherent ethos, philosophy, or moral policy outside its pratctitioner’s heads any more than social justice is. One is authoritarianism disguised as manners, the other is dishonesty disguised as civility. But if you can find something good and slap your label on it… hey, free publicity right?

      1. One is authoritarianism disguised as manners

        I’m borrowing that.

        1. Not mine. It’s a paraphrase from George Carlin. I believe his statement was ‘fascism disguised as manners’.

          1. I believe his statement was ‘fascism disguised as manners’.

            That works too.

          2. “When fascism comes to the U.S. it will be with a smiley face! Smiley smiley!”

            1. Hey, you got that one right.
              Maybe accidentally, but nonetheless you’re correct.

              1. All I remember from his show that I saw was “Ever notice at those anti-abortion rallies? You wouldn’t want to fuck any of them anyway!” I’m guessing he was talking about your mom.

                1. I was referring to some of the tags left by blmantifa

                  1. And here I assumed you were cultured and knew George Carlin’s material. Silly me.

      2. Gabbard’s big flaw was ostensibly being anti-war while having the street cred of being a serving military member.

        Even that didn’t stop the bullshit of calling her an Assad puppet and Putin-bot. It’s the knee-jerk response to anyone who threatens the MIC gravy train. So disgustingly and transparently bullshit, because if she actually was operating on behalf of a foreign government, don’t you think her COs would have a problem with it?

    2. Ron Wyden, Rand Paul, and not much else.

      1. Again, Ron Wyden isn’t a civil libertarian. He’s an anarcho-socialist who uses the label to appeal to people who think stealing and burning shit to the ground is a bad idea.

        Arguably Paul isn’t either. It would be a mistake to construe him as anti-civil causes but he doesn’t overtly claim the label or ideology.

  10. Hurrah for them! Yeah, some Democrats, but not the buttlicking lickspittles like most Democrats. They actually have principles and actually hold to them. Gosh.

    Since the LP candidate is turning out to be a conspiracy nutjob, I might just have to write in Tulsi Gabbard this year. And dammit, he’s not perfect, but Rand Paul needs to run in 2024.

    1. buttlicking lickspittles like most Democrats

      Ron Wyden was defending Antifa scum standing in the streets shouting “We’re going to fucking kill you.” through a loudspeaker. He knowingly licks not just any butt, but filthy hobo antifa butt.

        1. Insults from Nardz are the highest praise.

    2. I guess I could write in Ron Paul again. Even after the stroke scare today, he’s still more coherent than Biden or Trump.

  11. Great. This is just bringing to Trump’s attention another power he didn’t know he had, and which he is going to be itching to use when he loses the election.

    1. You’re another idiot paranoid bootlicker.

  12. Yet another hit piece against Trump from Democrat Reason’s liberal reporters who suck Biden’s cock. Nothing to see here. Gotta go, ten more minutes of commercials left on Rush Limbaugh.

      1. I’m just trying to be more like you.

        1. You can’t.
          You’re you.
          Be you.

          1. It’s not that I can’t. I’m just too much of a pussy to drill a few holes in my head.

  13. Good luck turning off Elon Musk’s Starlink, bitches.

  14. Governors put us under permanent house arrest over a common virus, but you worry about Trump maybe commandeering your hair dryer and washing machine? Are you effing serious?

    1. ^

      Reason is a sock puppet.

    2. With all that power, he could wash his laundry anywhere or, for that matter, grab any woman’s pussy if they let him!!!

  15. “”When governments around the world turn off internet access, they do significant harm to their national economies and their citizens’ civil rights,”” Great. Sounds familiar. Next go after the governors and mayors for their tyrannical shut downs.

    1. No, they like to soft pedal real tyranny

  16. Yeah, this shouldn’t be possible but it’s rich coming from Reason “if you don’t like 5 monopolies controlling speech on the internet, just build your own internet” Magazine.
    It would be nice if you guys actually got with the times and recognized the true dangers facing out access to the internet and ability to practice free speech instead of fretting over an 86 year old law that will probably never be invoked.

  17. So the authority has existed as long as there’s been an internet, but it’s suddenly a problem now, because…?

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  20. Communications act of 1934 initiated by FDR [D]
    Written by Sam Rayburn [D] and Clarence Dill [D] creating the FCC in place of the Radio Act 1927.

    Just another one of the alphabet agencies created during FDR & Democratic majorities.

  21. Gripe about the billing of Tulsi Gabbard as a “civil libertarian”. She’s authored a bill to restore the Fairness Doctrine, kind of a deal-breaker: https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/house-bill/4401/

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    1. They are probably all sites put up by Reason to generate funding.

  23. Funny that this provision of a 1934 law would suddenly become an issue.
    If Trump loses the election will they withdraw their bill?

  24. Anything proposed or co-signed by Ron Wyden is meritless crap. He’s garbage.

  25. I would say the issue isn’t whether they can or can’t do it from a technical perspective, it’s the criminalization and coercive aspects. While a drop in the bucket, it’s a drop in said bucket that I’d prefer not be available to President and Chief Prosecutor Kamala Harris once Biden is declared (officially) unfit for office… Tippecanoe and Harris too, etc. etc.