US politicians want to use crisis to increase state influence over operators

Law court crime punishment

Some Democrat Senators want to make it illegal for communications service providers to disconnect their customers during the coronavirus pandemic.

Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley is promoting the bill, which he hopes will be part of the next mountain of public cash to be chucked at fighting the crisis, proposed by the Democrats. They seem keen to chuck another three trillion bucks at the problem and, as with all the previous coronavirus bills in the US, opportunistic politicians on both sides of the aisle will be keen to add funding for their own pet causes to the bottom of the bill.

“Now, as millions of Americans hunker down, work from home, and engage in remote learning, would be the absolute worst time for Americans to lose a critical utility like internet service,” said Merkley. “Oregonians and people across America deserve to know that as we weather the social and economic consequences of this storm together, they will still have be able to go to work, go to school, buy groceries, and stay connected to loved ones—all of which many depend on the internet to do. Congress should include this protection in the next coronavirus response bill.”

There is little sign of a plague of disconnections, however, so it’s not clear why Merkley is being kept awake at night over this issue. US citizens unable to work are being paid instead by the government, as they are in many other countries, so there shouldn’t be a time when they’re unable to pay their telecoms bills. Furthermore the FCC already got US ISPs to sign a pledge not to disconnect people.

Instead this has the feeling of a thin-ends-of-the wedge, giving the state greater powers to order communications companies around. Furthermore, if it became known that it was illegal to disconnect people, what incentive would anyone have to pay their bills. The thinking behind this bill is probably indicated by the fact that a co-sponsor is old-school socialist Bernie Sanders, who seems to think all private property is somehow immoral.

Once the dust settles on all this viral vileness we may see that a lot of the power hastily handed over to the state in the heat of the moment remains in place. It’s one thing to temporarily turn on the tap of public money, quite another for the state to commandeer companies. US politicians seem to be especially shameless about exploiting the urgency of this crisis to push through legislation that would be laughed out of the room under normal circumstances, and US telcos must be hoping this particular bill is squashed as quickly as possible.

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