This would be US jurisdiction, say NYC.

Note this is a question about the law only; not a question about technical feasibility.

  • Could Apple or Google of their own volition legally shut down functionality of users' phone, say photo or video capabilities?
  • Could Verizon or T-Mobile legally do this as well?

If so, under what circumstances could a provider take such an action?

  • Could providers be ordered to take such an action, say under a declared state of emergency?
  • Could the state order providers to push updates that halt functionality of users' phones?

Have these scenarios already made it into law or into courtrooms?

Are phones owned, or just licensed to use, and does this change legality of above actions?

  • 1
    "Could providers be ordered to take such an action, say under a declared state of emergency?" This one is an easy yes (e.g. to preserve scarce bandwidth in the system due to emergency casualties to cell phone towers). It has been done before in natural disasters, although possibly not in the U.S. But, in other contexts I'd have to think it through and will look into it more before answering.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Jul 22, 2022 at 14:33
  • @ohwilleke The most curious aspect is where Google or Apple take their own initiative shutting down photos or videos or some other phone functionality. I could see different nation states perhaps requiring this feature in users phones at some point in the future. e.g. Within a defined classified government area, phones no longer take photos.
    – paulj
    Commented Jul 23, 2022 at 20:37
  • A lot will depend on circumstances. Your contract with a mobile phone service provider like Verizon will include some situations in which the company can shut down your service (usually temporarily) - this might include technical problems, requests by the state, and situations where your actions pose a threat to the network. They may also specify compensation in some cases when a service is unavailable. If you're using your phone for criminal purposes (however defined), the government can almost certainly stop you using it, using a variety of methods.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Jul 25, 2022 at 13:32
  • 2
    There is a difference between shutting down a service (e.g. disabling calls on a network, disabling video streaming, preventing you visiting a particular website), and shutting down functionality that does not require network services (e.g. preventing your phone taking a photo). Networks have a lot of discretion over the former, not so much the latter.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Jul 25, 2022 at 13:34

1 Answer 1


Short answer: YES, shutting down some phone functionality is legally permitted. However, it is judicially reviewable.

The ability to throttle long-distance service in the event of emergency is a well-accepted capability, both in regulations and technically. This was implemented to be able to give government agencies and other first responders priority over the general public.

An interesting implementation note is that, generally, throttling occurs for outgoing calls from the area of the emergency, not for incoming calls to the area. At least in the days of plain old telephone service, throttled calls would receive a "fast busy" signal, so most people might not notice it.

These capabilities were developed more than 20 years ago on recommendation of the President’s National Security Telecommunications Advisory Committee. I'm not sure if there are FCC regulations related to it, but my guess would be that's where you would find any codification of the legal authority.

911 service is a different matter. During an emergency, telephone companies are not allowed to throttle service. The FCC has taken a number of steps to increase public safety by encouraging and coordinating development of a nationwide, seamless communications system for emergency services1. In fact, in 2018 Verizon announced that it would stop throttling emergency responders’ data speeds.

It seems implicit in the above that throttling data services to the general public is permitted, emergency or not.

Given the regulatory structure involved, there seems little that a telecom company could not be ordered to do by the president under the National Emergencies Act (NEA)

Note: Under the NEA, the United States has been permitted to do actions not normally permitted nearly continuously since 1976.

Continuous emergency powers, how's that for executive overreach? https://sgp.fas.org/crs/natsec/98-505.pdf

https://www.fcc.gov/general/9-1-1-and-e9-1-1-services https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wireless_Communications_and_Public_Safety_Act https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_national_emergencies_in_the_United_States

  • The last part makes me wonder if the NEA is related to all the redactions of authority citations in the declassified documents related to the Russia Collusion hoax.
    – Max Battle
    Commented Jun 22, 2023 at 22:17

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