Obama's Internet Order: Power Grab or Simple Update?

Washington’s cynics go on high alert on Fridays around holidays. That’s traditionally when the White House puts out news it would rather didn’t get a whole lot of coverage.

Barack Obama
Barack Obama

That appears to be what happened on the Friday after Fourth of July as the White House revealed President Barack Obama’s new executive order clarifying the federal government’s communications authority in a national crisis.

Entitled “Assignment of National Security and Emergency Preparedness Communications Functions,” the blandly written document lays out a series of directives to government agencies to prepare plans to be able to communicate with “the public, allies, and other nations” in the event of a national crisis. It seems to assert the government can take control of private telecommunications technology, presumably including those used for the Internet, for government communications in an emergency.

Internet privacy advocates are raising concerns about the scope of the order, worrying that it represented a power grab on behalf of the federal government.

“Under the Executive Order the White House has … granted the Department [of Homeland Security] the authority to seize private facilities when necessary, effectively shutting down or limiting civilian communications,” wrote the Electronic Privacy Information Center in a blog post.

Critics are homing in on language such as this, from section 5.2\(e\) of the order: “The Secretary of Homeland Security shall … satisfy priority communications requirements through the use of commercial, Government, and privately owned communications resources, when appropriate.”

But White House officials tell CNBC that the new order does nothing more than update existing authority dating from a 1984 executive order to reflect modern communications technology. There are no new expansions of authority in the order, they said, and the measure simply directs agencies to develop plans for the government to be able to communicate with the people in a natural emergency like a nuclear attack or terrorist strike.

“The Internet is an international network of networks; no one person, organization or country can control or shut down the Internet,” wrote a government official in an email to CNBC. “The United States relies on the Internet to perform essential functions including to operate critical infrastructure and to maintain essential national security capabilities. That is why the President has designated our digital infrastructure as a strategic national asset. This Order is about communications resilience — the Administration's goal is to maintain this connected environment during the worst disasters, even in circumstances when our adversaries may wish to deprive us of their use.”

The lesson in all this? Keep an eye on government websites on Fridays.

- By CNBC's Eamon Javers