Future Tense

Could Emergency Alerts Come to Netflix and Spotify?

The Netflix logo on a tablet screen.
The Netflix logo on a tablet screen. LIONEL BONAVENTURE/AFP/Getty Images

Your Netflix-and-chill could one day be interrupted by a flash-flood warning. A new Senate bill would explore adding emergency alerts to online video and audio streaming services.

The Reliable Emergency Alert Distribution Improvement (READI) Act, introduced on Wednesday by Sen. Brian Schatz, a Hawaii Democrat, and Sen. John Thune, a South Dakota Republican, would create a commission to research the feasibility of sending emergency alerts through online streaming services. No platforms are name-dropped in the bill itself, but a press release announcing the bill mentions Netflix and Spotify as possible participants.
Netflix, Spotify, and Hulu did not immediately respond to Slate’s request for comment.

The idea of interrupting your Netflix binge with an emergency alert isn’t exactly new. But it takes on a new urgency after a false missile alert in Hawaii early this year exposed flaws in the emergency alert system, with some people never receiving the alert. That misfire prompted bipartisan legislation that would give the federal government sole responsibility for alerting the public of a missile threat.

The READI Act has some other ideas for improving emergency alerts. The bill would bring more alerts to people on their smartphones, TV, and radios. It would also disable the option to opt out of emergency alerts on mobile phones, tighten procedures for reporting false alerts, and require alerts issued by the president or FEMA to be repeated on air.

“Emergency alerts save lives but management mistakes can erode their credibility and effectiveness,” said Thune in the press release. “The READI Act implements lessons learned from past incidents and recognizes that emergency protocols must change along with communication technology.”

The national emergency alert system requires TV and radio broadcasters, cable television systems, and other providers to allow the president to communicate to the American public during a national emergency. The system—which is managed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Federal Communications Commission, and the National Weather Service—can also be used by state and local authorities for AMBER alerts and emergency weather information targeted to a specific area.

But change to the system, which was developed during the Cold War, has been slowgoing—it wasn’t until 2007 that satellite TV networks were added. And it took until 2011 for the system to run its first nationwide test. In other words, it may be a while before authorities are able to interrupt you as you binge the latest season of GLOW.