Is The First Test Of The National Emergency Alert System A Scary Harbinger Of Big Brother?

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.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com. In 2011 he was a finalist for the Watch Dog of the Year from the Sam Adams Alliance and winner of the Americans For Prosperity Award for Online Excellence. In 2013 the Washington Post named SAB one of the nation's top state-based political blogs, and named Rob one of the state's best political reporters. He writes a weekly column for several North Dakota newspapers, and also serves as a policy fellow for the North Dakota Policy Council.

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  • igx

    I wish the government would do more in this area. An EMP attack is inevitable, among other things. I don’t know what it would exactly look like, though.  It’s absolutely shameful how FEMA has turned out. 

    • http://flamemeister.com flamemeister

      Yeah, what is the update on defending against an EMP?  As far as I know, that except for a handful of protected hypercritical sites, EMP shuts down all electronics over a very wide area—a complete tactical disaster of the worst sort about which virtually nothing can be done.

      • Sriggs234

        If their is an EMP attack the loss of power will be the least of our problems.  That said, all they can do is turn off the power if warned of attack.  They already encase most of the critical circuits in Faraday cages (a metal box). 

      • igx

        We should have borrowed money from The Chinese and Saudis to decentralize, upgrade, and reinforce our energy systems. I guess they even have giant farday cages for utilities, now.  People should have extra money and food at home etc. 

  • Sean

    “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.”

    At which point the government could revoke their broadcast license, thus destroying the company.  No armed troops necessary.  The same is not true of the Internet.  Taking down a domain does not remove the content from the Internet.  Stomping on a broadcast with EAS removes the content completely.  Neither is worse or better than the other.  Government simply should NOT be involved in either arena!

    • http://sayanythingblog.com Rob

      At which point the government could revoke their broadcast license, thus destroying the company.

       

      True, but what exactly does that mean in a “government gone mad” scenario?  If we’re at the point where the government has co-opted the EAS for propaganda, and is revoking the licenses of broadcasters not complying, we’ve got bigger problems than that.

  • SigFan

    I have mixed feelings about this.  On the one hand, getting a warning out to the country in time of national emergency or attack is a reasonable thing and does seem to be something within the purview of the government to do.  On the other, the potential for abuse of a system like this does exist.  I think the question is do we trust our elected officials to use this as it’s stated intent or do we believe they will abuse it for something nefarious?  Given our history of government continually creeping into areas that they were never intended to be, it does not seem such a stretch to think they could abuse this power at some point.  Imminently?  Probably not.  Potentially?  I hate to say it but probably so.

  • http://flamemeister.com flamemeister

    One is not likely to go far wrong in assuming the worst about this Administration.

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