Riots recently consumed France amid mass public uprising after the police shot and killed a 17-year-old boy. The French government has deployed more than 45,000 law enforcement officers and arrested more than 1,300 French citizens in the aftermath of the riots. This isn’t that unusual, as the French love a good riot, but one disturbing, Orwellian response was floated in these riots that’s making waves: shutting down social media.
“We need to think about how young people use social networks, in the family, at school, the interdictions there should be … and when things get out of hand we may have to regulate them or cut them off,” French President Emmanuel Macron reportedly said. “Above all, we shouldn’t do this in the heat of the moment and I’m pleased we didn’t have to. But I think it’s a real debate that we need to have in the cold light of day.”
This extreme suggestion was met with harsh criticism from across the French political spectrum.
As the Guardian reports, the leader of the French Socialist Party tweeted, “The country of the rights of man and citizens cannot align itself with those great democracies of China, Russia and Iran.” A similar criticism emerged from the leader of the center-right Les Républicains party, who said, “Cut social media? Like China, Iran, North Korea? Even if it’s a provocation to distract attention, it’s in very bad taste.”
“Bad taste” might be the understatement of the century. For the government to shut down people’s access to the internet, aka mass communication, in order to quell protests against that very government, is the height of authoritarianism. It’s an illiberal act that shouldn’t be even fathomable in a Western democracy. Of course, it’s good that Macron ultimately didn’t go through with it, but it’s nonetheless deeply concerning that such a thing is even on the table in a supposedly modern, free society.
Yet Americans might be surprised to learn that such authoritarian acts are on the table here in the United States, too.
A bipartisan coalition of civil libertarians in Congress including Senator Rand Paul, Senator Gary Peters, Senator Ron Wyden, former Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, and Rep. Thomas Massie warned in September 2020 that the US president may have an “internet kill switch” at his or her disposal that could be utilized in an “emergency.” As I reported at the time:
“The executive branch technically has the authority under a World War II-era amendment of the Communications Act of 1934 to seize control of, monitor, or shut down ‘any wire communication’ if the president deems it necessary for ‘national security’ and declares an emergency. This power applied to the modern age would certainly include the ability of a president to, amid a crisis, seize control of the internet or even shut it off in swaths of the country in the name of national security. It even appears the president could do this all unilaterally.”
“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 said in remarks accompanying the bipartisan coalition’s proposal to revoke this power.
“Americans do not have to accept the premise that one person can deprive them of their 1st Amendment rights by flipping a switch,” Massie added.
No one who lived through the last few years can still deny the very real possibility that when government officials have drastic “emergency powers” on the books, they will use them if ever given the excuse.
So, we can’t just look on in horror at authoritarianism happening abroad yet sleep comfortably at night thinking “it could never happen here.” The US is a much freer country than most, yes, but we have to jealously guard that freedom. And that means taking away authoritarian powers so that a president “cutting off” social media is never, ever, even on the table here.