Reps. Eshoo and Griffith Introduce Bipartisan Bill to Limit Presidential Powers to Shut Down Internet

October 22, 2020
Press Release

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Congresswoman Anna G. Eshoo (D-CA) and Congressman Morgan Griffith (R-VA) announced the Preventing Unwarranted Communications Shutdowns Act, a bipartisan bill to limit presidential powers to control or shut down communications networks, including the internet.

The Communications Act currently authorizes the President to take control of communications facilities or equipment in certain circumstances. While the internet is, by design, decentralized and cannot be ‘shut down,’ the Communications Act leaves open the possibility for a presidential order that leads to Americans not being able to access the internet. The Preventing Unwarranted Communications Shutdowns Act limits the President’s authorities; requires the President to notify Congress and senior Executive Branch officials within 12 hours of any shutdown; and requires approval within 48 hours from three-fifths of both the House and the Senate (including one-quarter of the minority party in each chamber) for the order to remain lawful.

“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,” said Rep. Eshoo. “Unchecked executive powers and the emergency authorities of the President under the Communications Act need to be revisited. May there never be in 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,” said Rep. Griffith. “This bill would create guardrails so that any internet shutdown would require the consent of the people through their elected representatives.”

“The rate of internet shutdowns is increasing around the world. This is an alarming global trend that threatens democratic processes, human rights, and modern economic life. It’s hard to imagine it happening here at home. But it could. In the United States our laws are dated and they offer virtually unchecked power to the president over our wired and wireless communications when we face peril or national emergency. So kudos to Congresswoman Eshoo for legislation to modernize our laws and put in place safeguards to ensure that the internet stays on when we need it most.”— Jessica Rosenworcel, Commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission

“The Preventing Unwarranted Communications Shutdown Act is a long overdue check and balance on a President’s authority to shut down or significantly curtail internet communication under the guise of an emergency.  At a time when Americans increasingly rely on the internet for economic, political and social activity, unfettered Executive power to control or manipulate that communication endangers our civil rights and freedom.”—Michael Chertoff, Former Secretary of Homeland Security, Co-Founder and Executive Chairman of The Chertoff Group, and author of Exploding Data: Reclaiming Our Cyber Security in the Digital Age

“The internet is more vital to our national wellbeing than any network in history. Yet, in a time of emergency, how the internet operates is in the hands of one person. Defining that authority in a focused manner and adding congressional oversight would bring an old statute into the digital age.” — Tom Wheeler, Former Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Senior Fellow at Harvard Kennedy School Shorenstein Center, Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Institution, and Author of From Gutenberg to Google: The History of Our Future

“Access Now has long advocated to stop internet shutdowns because they cause significant harm to people's human rights, particularly their freedom of expression and assembly, by cutting them off from important communications channels and cutting their access to information. This legislation would significantly curtail the president's ability to order such a shutdown, which is a huge step in the right direction.” —Eric Null, US Policy Manager at Access Now

“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 US. It adds process, and checks and balances, to what is currently an ad hoc authority.” —Bruce Schneier, Fellow and Lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School, Chief of Security Architecture of Inrupt Inc., and author of Click Here to Kill Everybody

“The internet should be a public resource, open and accessible to all. But unfortunately, internet shutdowns have been used in some places as a tool to stifle dissent and restrict free expression, and there are authorities within US law that could be similarly overextended and abused. This legislation would help preserve our fundamental digital rights by establishing the procedural safeguards, transparency, and congressional oversight that must accompany the use of these broad powers. We applaud Congresswoman Eshoo for introducing this bill and bringing greater attention to this important issue.” —Amy Keating, Chief Legal Officer, Mozilla Corporation

“I commend Rep Eshoo and her bipartisan colleagues for seeking to modernize an important national security tool. I hope it collects dust in the policy toolchest, but if a president needed to dust it off and use it, this legislation would help ensure it is used in a judicious, democratically accountable manner.” —Andrew J. Grotto, Director of the Stanford Program on Geopolitics, Technology and Governance

“Striking the proper balance between the emergency authority of the executive branch and control by the legislature is a difficult challenge.  This bill is an excellent effort to modernize the Communications Act for today’s internet while trying to strike that balance responsibly and thoughtfully.  It deserves consideration and bipartisan support in Congress.” —Paul Rosenzweig, Senior Fellow, R St. Institute

“Anyone who cares about the future of our democracy should support Rep. Eshoo’s bill, which safeguards against a president abusing the authority to shut off the internet, while retaining flexibility for a president to address a genuine emergency through our networks. Shutting down the internet -- a crucial component of our democracy and economy -- would be disastrous. We can no longer leave that in the hands of just one person.” —Harold Feld, Senior Vice President at Public Knowledge

“Over a century ago, Congress granted the President broad powers to shut down, or seize control of, America’s communications infrastructure. We think it’s time for a serious debate over whether those powers should be available to shut down the Internet at Presidential whim. This bill tackles a question that shouldn’t be as controversial: Congress needs to be told what’s happening and why if emergency powers are used. And it needs to be up to lawmakers to decide whether an emergency shutdown will continue, lest it become permanent.” —Berin Szóka, Senior Fellow, TechFreedom

The Preventing Unwarranted Communications Shutdowns Act does the following:

  • Limits the reasons the President may take action under §706 of the Communications Act of 1934 to ones necessary to protect against an imminent and specific threat to human life or national security if such action is narrowly tailored and is the least restrictive means for the purpose;
     
  • Requires that the President notify congressional leaders (i.e., Speaker, House Minority Leader, and Senate Majority and Minority Leaders), senior executive branch officials (i.e., Vice President, department heads, intelligence community heads, Joint Chiefs of Staff), and the FCC before or not later than 12 hours after taking any action authorized under §706;
     
  • Nullifies §706 orders 12 hours after issuance of the order if the President does not provide notification in the specified time and form;
     
  • Nullifies §706 orders 48 hours after the President provides notice unless three-fifths of each of the House and the Senate vote to pass an approval resolution, with an affirmative vote of at least one-quarter of the minority party in each chamber (the 48 hour period may be extended with the consent of the congressional leaders or their designees)
     
  • Requires a GAO report after every §706 order, and requires a one-time GAO report estimating the impact of a communication shutdown; and
     
  • Requires that the US government compensate providers and customers of providers for any communications shutdown under §706.

A one-page summary of the bill can be found HERE.

A section by section of the legislation can be found HERE.

Text of the legislation can be found HERE.

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