FCC Commissioner Warns of Internet Shutdown Risk

During a speech delivered at the State of the Net internet policy conference in Washington, D.C., FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel warned of the possibility that the government could use a provision in the Communications Act of 1934 to shut down the Internet.

Rosenworcel contextualized her remarks by illustrating the importance of the Web. “[W]e have discovered what is ugly—that outrage can travel online with a greater velocity than veracity. We have also discovered what is terrifying—that this tool for global collaboration can be used to disrupt democracies as surely as it can be used to destabilize dictatorships.”

Recounting a recent six-month Internet shutdown carried out by the Indian government in the long-disputed Kashmir region, Rosenworcel noted the effects of a region being suddenly thrust back into an earlier technological era. “[U]nemployment is up and industries the region depends on, like tourism, are down. Health care and education are suffering. Vital supplies like insulin and baby food are at risk of running out. Cash is scarce because banks and automatic teller machines are shuttered.” She added that 122 shutdowns have taken place in 21 countries in 2019 alone.

Roseenworcel then discussed the possibility that such a shutdown could take place in the United States. The shutdown in Kashmir was carried out under the authority of the Indian Telegraph Act of 1885, a law that predates India’s independence from Britain, Rosenworcel said, and American communication law is similarly antiquated; most communications law is derived from 1934, well before the creation of the Internet.

Section 706 of the Communications Act allows the President to take over ” any facility or station for wire communication” if there exists a state or threat of war. Wireless communications may be suspended during a “state of public peril,” with no notification to Congress required. She cautioned that the broad language demonstrated a need for reform, adding that “Norms are being broken all the time in Washington and relying on them to cabin legal interpretation is not the best way to go.”

Concluding her remarks, Rosenworcel urged the FCC, State Department, and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to develop a collaborate policy on government-directed internet shutdown.