Amid Civil Unrest, Can Police Shut Down Cell Service?

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As the U.S. now grapples with multi-city protests and riots sparked by the death of George Floyd, a single tweet at 1 a.m. on Monday has given rise to a potentially troubling scenario. 

The Washington Post reported the tweet came from an account with only three followers, claiming Washington, D.C. had been cut off from digital connectivity. Although the tweet was later confirmed a hoax, #DCblackout had trended across the U.S. in hundreds of thousands of tweets that included reports of protesters gone missing, police using rifle silencers, and explosions. 

In an article as part of its Free Speech Project, Slate raised the question of whether police, the government, or even the President, could intentionally shut down cell service. 

According to Section 333 of the Communications Act of 1934, interfering with any wireless signal is a violation of federal law, except for emergency situations, reports Slate. Harold Feld, senior vice president of D.C.-based consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge, told the publication that using the emergency scenario, local authorities need only go to the carriers and say, “Hey, there’s a riot and we need you to halt your services for safety reasons.” The carriers could then do that, in accordance with the law, Feld said.  

President Trump’s recent proposed invokement the Civil Insurrection Act gave Feld additional cause for concern. The Act itself gives the president the power to send military forces to states to quell widespread public unrest and to support civilian law. As Feld noted, “[I]f Trump goes ahead with invoking the Civil Insurrection Act, and he also invokes his powers under [Section 706], he could then arguably order phone companies to shut down their service on demand of federal authorities.”

Section 706 of the Communications Act includes details regarding presidential war powers. As such, if President Trump were to proclaim an actual war, threat of war, a “state of public peril,” or a “national emergency,” he alone would have the authority to federalize and take over all means of communication.

FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel called for a reassessment of Section 706 earlier this year, saying that the U.S. should develop policy on government-directed shutdowns. 

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