I’ve been getting a lot of email from readers about this story concerning the first-ever test of the national Emergency Alert System from people concerned about the government having too much control over broadcasters. On November 9th the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), FEMA, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Weather Service (NWS) will perform the test, taking all radio and television in the country off the air.
At first blush that sounds…alarming. The government has the power to cut off all media and supplant it with its own broadcasts? But the reality isn’t nearly as sinister as it seems, I think.
First off, I don’t don’t emergency alerts from the government to be all that troubling. I live in an area prone to extreme weather like flooding and tornadoes. I appreciate the emergency alert system for its ability to reach everyone who happens to be watching television or listening to the radio. The tests are annoying, yes, but how many lives does this save?
Second, I’m not sure this is as Big Brother-ish as some have claimed. The federal government has control of the EAS system, sure, but so does local government. And “control” is a tricky word. They can broadcast these alerts with the cooperation of the radio stations and the television stations, etc., etc. Meaning that if these companies wanted to stop cooperating – say in the case of some president gone mad and using the EAS system for political purposes – they could. Very easily. And it wouldn’t be all that easy, given the distributed nature of broadcast media, for the government to force compliance short of sending armed troops to the stations themselves.
What bothers me far more than the EAS system is the federal government’s increasing power over the internet, including their ability to simply shut down domain names. Earlier this year the Department of Homeland Security got 84,000 sites shut down claiming that they were distributing child pornography. The websites were replaced with a very scary banner indicating naming child pornography as the reason why the websites were shut down (so much for due process). The problem was that most of these websites had nothing to do with kiddie porn, the DHS had made a mistake.
They got a warrant in that case, but in others they haven’t, and the government is seeking additional powers facilitate removal of websites from the internet.
With all apologies to broadcasters, the internet is a much more important information medium these days. The push by the government to gain greater control over it is of much greater concern than the EAS system.