Federal Internet Law & Policy
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World War I Dont be a FOOL; The Law is Not DIY


Favor Transfer of Cable System, Valdez daily prospector. (Valdez, Alaska), 17 Dec. 1913. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. ("Officials of the War and Postoffice departments have held a conference regarding the proposed transfer of the United States military cable and telegraph lines in Alaska from the War to the Postoffice department. It is generally believed here that congress will be asked to consent to the transfer. Postmaster General Burleson is anxious to secure the Alaska cable and telegraph lines as an entering wedge in his campaign of government ownership of the telegraph and telephone lines in the United States. He is anxious to have all means of communication, mail, telegraph, telephone, express and even the wireless stations controlled by his department. ")


Jan. 19th: Zimmerman Telegram. Telegram between Foreign Secretary for the German Empire Arthur Zimmerman and German Ambassador to Mexico Heinrich von Eckardts proposing an alliance between Germany and Mexico if the USA were to enter WWI. Mexico would be given Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.

"We intend to begin on the first of February unrestricted submarine warfare. We shall endeavor in spite of this to keep the United States of America neutral. In the event of this not succeeding, we make Mexico a proposal of alliance on the following basis: make war together, make peace together, generous financial support and an understanding on our part that Mexico is to reconquer the lost territory in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. The settlement in detail is left to you. You will inform the President of the above most secretly as soon as the outbreak of war with the United States of America is certain and add the suggestion that he should, on his own initiative, invite Japan to immediate adherence and at the same time mediate between Japan and ourselves. Please call the President's attention to the fact that the ruthless employment of our submarines now offers the prospect of compelling England in a few months to make peace.

April 6, US enters World War I

Radio Arlington announces declaration of war to US Fleet. [Arlington Public Library]

On April 7th, 1917, having entered WWI, pursuant to the powers given to it by the Radio Act of 1912 (a law motivated in part by the Titanic disaster), the federal government, led by the Navy, took control of and shut down all private radio operations in the United States. [] See also [Rescue at Sea ("USG shut down operation of amateur radio operators")] [Mackay History (US Navy commandeers radio stations in the United States owned by Germans.)] This was not as drastic a measure as it might seem today since the commercial broadcasting we now know did not begin until 1920. But it was major blow to the thousands of amateur or "ham" radio operators who had discovered and begun to popularize the new medium of radio. Many of these men, like Armstrong, joined the Army, Navy, or Merchant Marine in order to put their now precious skills to work on behalf of the United States .

Dec. 28: USG nationalizes railroads.

1918: USG Nationalizes Telephone, Telegraph, Cable, Radio

Communications workers threaten to go on strike several times.

Federal Control of Systems of Communication: Hearings on H.J. Res. 309 Before the House Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce, 65th Cong., 2d Sess. (July 2, 1918).

July 9:: President of Western Union testifies before Senate Committee on Interstate Commerce against the proposed government takeover of telephone and telegraph service.

By The President of the United States, A Proclamation (July 22, 1918), 40 Stat. 1807 (1918) (Woodrow Wilson)

By the President of the United States of America

A Proclamation
July 22, 1918

Whereas, the Congress of the United States, in the exercise of the constitutional authority vested in them, by joint resolution of the Senate and House of Representatives, bearing date July 16, 1918, resolved:

That the President, during the continuance of the present war, is authorized and empowered, whenever he shall deem it necessary for the national security or defense, to supervise or to take possession and assume control of any telegraph, telephone, marine cable, or radio system or systems, or any part thereof, and to operate the same in such manner as may be needful or desirable for the duration of the war, which supervision, possession, control, or operation shall not extend beyond the date of the proclamation by the President of the exchange of ratifications of the treaty of peace: Provided, that just compensation shall be made for such supervision, possession, control, or operation, to be determined by the President: and if the amount thereof, so determined by the President, is unsatisfactory to the person entitled to receive the same, such person shall be paid 75 per centum of the amount so determined by the President and shall be entitled to sue the United States to recover such further sum as, added to said 75 per centum, will make up such amount as will be just compensation therefor, in the manner provided for by Section 24, Paragraph 20, and Section 145 of the Judicial Code: Provided, further, that nothing in this Act shall be construed to amend, repeal, impair, or affect existing laws or powers of the States in relation to taxation or the lawful police regulations of the several States except wherein such laws, powers or regulations may affect the transmission of Government communications or the issue of stocks and bonds by such system or systems.

And, whereas, It is deemed necessary for the national security and defense to supervise and to take possession and assume control of all telegraph and telephone systems and to operate the same in such manner as may be needful or desirable:

Now, therefore, I, Woodrow Wilson, President of the United States, under and by virtue of the powers vested in me by the foregoing resolution, and by virtue of all other powers thereto me enabling, do hereby take possession and assume control and supervision of each and every telegraph and telephone system, and every part thereof, within the Jurisdiction of the United States, including all equipment thereof and appurtenances thereto whatsoever and all materials and supplies.

It is hereby directed that the supervision, possession, and control and operation of such telegraph and telephone systems hereby by me undertaken shall be exercised by and through the Postmaster General, Albert S. Burleson. Said Postmaster General may perform the duties hereby and hereunder imposed upon him, so long and to such extent and in such manner as he shall determine, through the owners, managers, board of directors, receivers, officers, and employees of said telegraph and telephone systems.

Until and except so far as said Postmaster General shall from time to time by general or special orders otherwise provide, the owners, managers, board of directors, receivers, officers and employees of the various telegraph and telephone systems shall continue the operation thereof in the usual and ordinary course of business of said systems, in the names of their respective companies, associations, organizations, owners, or managers, as the case may be.

Regular dividends hitherto declared, and maturing interest upon bonds, debentures, and other obligations may be paid in due course; and such regular dividends and interest may continue to be paid until and unless the said Postmaster General shall, from time to time, otherwise by general or special orders determine, and subject to the approval of said Postmaster General, the various telegraph and telephone systems may determine upon and arrange for the renewal and extension of maturing obligations.

By subsequent order of said Postmaster General supervision, possession, control or operation, may be relinquished in whole or in part to the owners thereof of any telegraph or telephone system or any part thereof supervision, possession, control or operation of which is hereby assumed or which may be subsequently assumed in whole or in part hereunder.

From and after 12 o'clock midnight on the 31st day of July 1918, all telegraph and telephone systems included in this order and proclamation shall conclusively be deemed within the possession and control and under the supervision of said Postmaster General without further act or notice.

In Witness Whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed.

Done by the President, in the District of Columbia, this 22d day of July, in the year of our Lord 1918, and of the independence of the United States the 143d.

Woodrow Wilson

The rational for nationalization has been attributed to the departure of men to the war and the resulting deterioration of service, the threats of strikes by communications unions, and the need to protect against spies and other threats. [Reference for Business ("Cincinnati Bell lost employees to the military effort, and the company suffered from high inflation and shortages of materials. In 1918 the federal government assumed operation of all telephone companies until the signing of a peace treaty in November of that year.")]

USPS assumed management of the communications companies. USG assumed AT&T obligations and guaranteed to continue to pay the AT&T dividend. However, AT&T maintained operational control of the network. [USPS History 2015 ("Telegraph service was under the direction of Postmaster General Albert Burleson from August 1, 1918, to July 31, 1919. To ensure continuity of service, Burleson ordered telegraph companies to operate as usual.")] [Chris Matthews, AT&T and the Government have been 'Friends' for a really long time, Fortune Aug. 18, 2015 ("During the short time the government ran AT&T, it approved dozens of consolidations of competing services")] Postmaster General increased telephone rates $3.50 and other rate increases that AT&T had previously seeking [Horowitz p. 101] [Dakota Central Telephone Co. v. State of South Dakota ex rel. Payne, Attorney General, __ US __ affirming power of USPO to set telephone rates] [Sweeping Cut in Telephone Rates Ordered, New-York tribune. (New York [N.Y.]), 16 Dec. 1918. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.]

Nov. 2: Pres. Wilson nationalizes submarine cables. [Woodrow Wilson, Proclamation (Nov. 2, 1918), 40 Stat. 1872]

See also 1918 Flu Pandemic

Nov. 11: Hostilities cease (Veterans Day).

1919 June 28: Treaty of Versailles signed.

Telegraph Traffic During War

The War resulted in a massive increase in government telegraph traffic. From 1917 to 1918, Western Union traffic increased almost 500% (based on revenue from traffic). Western Union's network was more extensive than Postal Telegraph's and reports indicate that Western Union built its network out to meet military needs. As a result, while Postal Telegraph's traffic also increased, it lost market share to Western Union.

PRA Traffic by YearWU in DCWU Outside DCPostal in DCPostal Outside DCPostal as Percent of WU
1919$1,505,941$2,335,313$122,745 $271,74610%
1918$1,074,467$1,268,285$132,479 $139,01712%
1917 $219,366 $271,746 $41,863 $32,33115%

Source: Would Not Attend to Government Business, The daily times. [volume] (Wilson, N.C.), 12 June 1919. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.

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