Technology Freedom Group Challenges Government’s Ability To “Shutdown” Internet, Wireless Services

By @TrishaMarczakMP |
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    Screen grab from the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) website. (Photo/

    Screen grab from the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) website. (Photo/

    (MintPress) – It’s going to take an act of justice for the Obama administration to release the contents of its Emergency Wireless Protocols, which indicate when and why the government hits the kill switch on the Internet and wireless services in the case of an “emergency.”

    The act had already been done in the United States to halt protests of California’s Bay Area Rapid Transit (CBART) in 2011. Following the death of a homeless man by a CBART transit officer claiming self defense, protesters rallied. To halt the activists, wireless communication was cut off in the transit center for three hours. Similar tactics were seen during the Arab Spring to shut down Internet and wireless service used by activists, most notably in Egypt and Syria.

    The impact of widespread wireless shutdown in the United States would be immense, which is why technology freedom advocates with the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) is suing the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) for the standard operating procedure that would lead to the wireless shutdown.

    “Given the issues at stake, it’s important for the public to know exactly when this procedure might be,” EPIC Consumer Advocate Counsel David Jacobs told Mint Press News, “and under what circumstances and what justification is.”

    EPIC filed a Freedom of Information Act request in July 2012 with the Department of Homeland Security to obtain the content of three things: the standard operating procedure (SOP 303) that would lead to a shutdown, the list of questions posed by DHS when considering a shutdown and any other guidelines relating to the issue.

    In September 2012, EPIC received a written appeal from the Homeland Department of Security, stating that it was “unable to locate or identify any responsive records.”

    “It’s incredible that DHS claimed the record didn’t exist, or that it couldn’t find it,” Jacob said.

    EPIC appealed the denial In October and awaited response, mandated to be returned within 20 days. When the DHS failed to comply, EPIC filed a lawsuit.

    Aside from an inconvenience, technology freedom advocates point to a blatant violation of the First Amendment, as it violates the freedom of speech through the use of prior restraint.

    “Wireless networks are vital for communication and for exercising First Amendment-protected activities for free speech, assembly, association and so on,” Jacobs said. “There’s an urgency we think for the public to obtain more information about DHS’ authority to shut down the wireless network.”


    The secret behind SOP 303

    What the public does know about the Emergency Wireless Protocol is the chain of command that leads to a wireless shutdown. While the Homeland Security Department issues the need for the shutdown, it’s the National Security Center that’s responsible for making the final decision. What the public doesn’t know is what constitutes Homeland Security to give the nod.

    In May, EPIC and other tech freedom organizations, including the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT), urged the FCC and Homeland Security agency to inform the public what constitutes a national emergency worthy of halting all wireless service.

    “The details of SOP 303 are secret,” CDT said in a May 31, 2012 statement. “We literally have one paragraph of description in one government report to go on. But even based on that description it’s clear that the protocol fails to meet the First Amendment’s strict requirements for when the government engages in prior restraint on speech.”


    The order has already been given

    That prior restraint on speech was seen in July 2011, when a protest against California’s Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) officers effectively cut off wireless communication within the transit center, leaving protesters unable to send or receive messages, phone calls or other data-related service.

    This case is specifically highlighted in EPIC’s lawsuit, used as an example, pointing out that in 2011, the White House stated that the National Security Council (NSC) had the authority to control wireless communication in the case of a national security threat. Did the protest against the transit authority pose a national security threat?

    The information has not been released, but no indication was given by the NSC that would indicate that to be the case.

    It’s cases like this that Jacobs said warrant concern. While there are legitimate reasons for shutting down wireless service, including for issues related to bomb detonation, there’s a question over whether the power will be used to quash protest and dissent — in that case, it’s not legal.

    Information obtained to the FOIA request could also lead to helpful debate among the public and policy makers, as not everyone is sure to agree on the circumstances necessary to halt wireless service.

    “The importance comes from the fact that we all use wireless devices, we’re probably all carrying one right now. As far as trusting the government, to quote Ronald Reagan, there’s nothing wrong with making sure that the government is acting in your best interest,” Jacob said. “And with debating some of the issues, people are going to have different perspectives on when shutting down is appropriate.”

    EPIC expects a decision regarding the lawsuit within the next two to three months.

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