World Wants Obama's Hands Off the Internet's Off Switch

John Hudson
The Atlantic Wire
World Wants Obama's Hands Off the Internet's Off Switch

President Obama's recently signed executive order outlining emergency control of the Internet didn't get much attention in the U.S. but it's spooking foreign journalists. On Friday, Obama issued an order addressing how federal agencies can deal with the Internet during a natural disaster or security threat. "The federal government must have the ability to communicate at all times and under all circumstances to carry out its most critical and time sensitive missions," Obama said. It was described in mild terms as an order outlining the jurisdiction of different agencies over telecommunications and "non-military communications networks" in the event of a catastrophe but reports outside the country characterized it in a starkly different way: The freedom to unilaterally shut down the Internet.

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Without hedging, the Kremlin-backed news outlet Russia Today splashed the headline "Obama gives himself control of all communication systems in America" in a widely-retweeted article calling the order "the most far-reaching yet of any of his executive decisions." In today's Le Monde, the French newspaper calls it a "controversial decree" that advocacy groups say gives the Department of Homeland Security control over the "the Internet provided [to] the general public." A similar article appeared in the German outlet Linke Zeitung.

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In Canada, the conservative newspaper Canada Free Press said the move was evidence of "Obama's obsession with control" and called the July 6 order a secretive "Friday news dump." Meanwhile, the Montreal-based research organization Centre for Research on Globalisation described the move as a seizure of power, saying Obama "has usurped all available forms of communication." It quotes journalist Danny Schechter saying alternative media is becoming "extremely damaging" to the US and recalls a 2011 quote from Hillary Clinton saying the U.S. government is losing "the information war" with the American public. "Under Obama’s discretion, all radio and digital communications can be intercepted with recommendation by the assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism and the Director of OSTP," writes Susanne Posel.

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How threatening Obama's new executive powers are is subject to debate. But what's interesting is the disproportionate attention the order has gotten abroad compared with at home. While the executive order received rather sober coverage from CNET and National Journal's tech blog following its release, it hasn't gained traction in its natural home: The right-wing, Obama-averse blogosphere. As far as we can tell, the main source of domestic opposition to the bill stems from a short press release from the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a DC-based research center, which says the order could allow the government to "disconnect communications traffic in times of national security." But Redstate, Breitbart, Wall Street Journal: Nothing!

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So is this order actually worth worrying about? We're not experts on the matter but a rather even-handed report by CNET's Dara Kerr says that potential criticisms basically boil down to a line in Section 5.2. "It states that the Secretary of Homeland Security will 'oversee the development, testing, implementation, and sustainment' of national security and emergency preparedness measures on all systems, including private 'non-military communications networks.'" That's the passage thought to refer to the proverbial "on/off" switch to the Internet. Say what you will about the order itself, but it appears to be the sole preoccupation of outsiders, not the people it would actually effect (i.e. Americans).