Streaming services like Netflix, Disney+, and Spotify might be required to issue emergency alerts from the US government if lawmakers have their way. TV and radio stations operating in the U.S. are required by law to issue emergency warnings, like the infamous fake missile alert for Hawaii issued in early 2018, but lawmakers want to bring those alerts to more platforms, as viewers use more and more internet-based services.
The legislation, dubbed the Reliable Emergency Alert Distribution Improvement (READI) Act, has bipartisan support and is being introduced in the Senate. A bipartisan group of Representatives in the House have a similar bill that has already been introduced.
The legislation would also make it illegal for consumers to opt out of federal emergency alerts on their phones and would require alerts by the U.S. president and FEMA to be repeated. TV and radio stations are currently only required to issue an alert once.
“When a missile alert went out across Hawaii last year, some people never got the message on their phones, while others missed it on their TVs and radios. Even though it was a false alarm, the missile alert exposed real flaws in the way people receive emergency alerts,” Senator Schatz said in a statement posted to his website.
“Our bill fixes a number of important problems with the system responsible for delivering emergency alerts. In a real emergency, these alerts can save lives so we have to do everything we can to get it right.”
In January of 2018, most people in Hawaii received an emergency alert on their phone reading: “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.” The alert was a false alarm, but came at a time when nuclear tensions between the U.S. and North Korea had reached a boiling point and there was a very real reason to fear a ballistic missile attack. Some people sent messages to their loved ones, truly believing that they might die. One man even had a heart attack from the shock of the announcement.
Streaming services like Netflix weren’t required to issue any kind of alert in Hawaii during that false alarm, but that’s obviously something legislators would like to change. The employee who triggered the false alert was fired, but there are still a lot of unanswered questions about how it happened.
Obviously, there are concerns about the kind of power an increasingly authoritarian U.S. president might abuse to speak directly with the American people. Could such a system be misused by an unhinged regime to spread fear and propaganda? Of course. But US Congress still has to pretend that it’s passing laws in a normal world playing by normal rules, even if our world is anything but normal at the moment.