“The more terrifying the occasion for defense, the closer will become the organization and the more coercive the influence upon each member of the herd.”Randolph Bourne
“’Emergencies’ have always been the pretext on which the safeguards of individual liberty have been eroded.”Friedrich Hayek
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.
During March and April of this year—during the early days of the covid-19 panic—each day came to be accompanied by a general feeling of dread. As new emergency orders and decrees rained down from governors, mayors, and faceless health bureaucrats, I wondered, What new awful thing will governments think up today? As business and churches were closed by government edict, politicians increasingly were threatening to arrest and jail ordinary citizens for doing things that were perfectly legal mere days before.
Even worse was the new orthodoxy that seemed to immediately spring up. All dissent from the new regime of lockdowns and business seizures was denounced and mocked. We were now all expected to chant new slogans. “We’re all in this together. Flatten the curve.”
There was no sign of any sizable opposition. The courts were silent. So-called due process was abandoned.
But for those of us who are old enough to remember the dark times that followed the 9/11 attacks, the feelings of dread had a familiarity to them.
The blind sloganeering, the anger toward dissent, and the obeisance toward politicians who were credited with “keeping us safe” brought back bad old memories.
They were memories of the days and months and years that followed the 9/11 attacks. These were the days of so many new assaults on basic human freedoms and human rights. They were days when the public was bullied into accepting whatever new scheme politicians were dreaming up in the name of keeping us “safe.”
In many ways, the current hysteria is even worse than that of the early years of the twenty-first century. It affects the everyday lives of countless Americans in ways the 9/11 panic did not. But the current crisis is nonetheless very much a continuation of the attitudes and paranoia that surged nineteen years ago.