After roundly criticizing other governments for using technology to disable cell phone usage at certain times and in certain areas in order to limit and control public demonstrations, governments from San Francisco to London are warming to the practice themselves.
During mass protests earlier this year against the dictatorial regimes of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, those government took actions to stop the flow of information over the Internet and social websites. The United States was among the first and most vocal critics o such moves.
Unfortunately, the temptation to use such a tool in the democratized world to control the populace is proving too strong to ignore, despite impediments to such practices in our Constitution.
In Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron recently threatened to block access to social networking sites – including Facebook and Twitter – and Blackberry Messenger that were being used to organize riots.
This Orwellian tactic is now being employed in the United States. Earlier this month, for example, officials from the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system in San Francisco disabled cell phone service for an entire area to prevent a planned protest at one of its stations. According to statements they made to the media in the aftermath of this episode, BART officials took such action simply because the transit agency “feared” there might be violence at the planned demonstration. The government apparently did not even seriously consider the need to present its case to a court before instituting such drastic action.
Actions such as these raise the the specter of even more far-reaching capabilities in the hands of government agencies to limit the ability of citizens to communicate.
For example, the CIA already has access to an “independent” company, In-Q-Tel, which serves as a bridge between the government and dozens of technology and communications-related companies through investments and partnerships. A sister agency, the National Security Agency has collected phone call records for millions of Americans – amassing the “largest database ever assembled in the world,” according to USA Today.
Even more broadly, legislation has been introduced in past sessions of Congress that would give a president an Internet “kill switch,” to be activated in the event of a perceived cybersecurity threat. Supporters of the proposal, including Sen. Joseph Lieberman, argue that because other countries such as China have such capability to control their citizenry, so must the United States.
In fact, according to some interpretations of current law, the president already has the power to take such action. Jon Orlin wrote earlier this year at TechCrunch.com, that Section 706 of the Communications Act of 1934, which created the FCC, “gives the president authority, in a state or threat of war, to ‘cause the closing of any facility or station for wire communication’ with no advance warning.”
A broad reading of legal authorities such as Orlin’s, fits perfectly with the post-911 mind set in Washington that a president’s “responsibility” to protect national security is virtually limitless; and trumps even express legal prohibitions. As Orlin also notes, the Department of Homeland Security already has cited the 1934 Act as one of the powers “the president would rely on if the nation was under a cyberattack.”
Whether the perceived “threat” is as broad as a cyberattack, or as narrow as a political demonstration or a rally against police brutality, placing in the hands of government bureaucrats the absolute power to summarily disable the ability of citizens to communicate, is a frightening notion. It also is one clearly at odds with the language and the intent of the Constitution our forebears crafted to prevent just such actions.
by Bob Barr, The Barr Code