When I wrote on Thursday about free speech issues raised when Britain’s Prime Minister suggested blocking access to social media in an effort to control riots; I had no idea that same thing had not only been considered in this country – but had actually already been done in San Francisco that very day.
The difference is, in Britain the government was thinking about clamping down on mobile communications to quell riots, but what actually happened here in the US was done to discourage people from protesting.
Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) deliberately blocked cell phone service at several stations on Thursday to block a protest. The protest was planned in response to the recent shooting of a man by a BART police officer.
After a protest over the same incident last month shut down three BART stations during heavy commute times, the transit agency said it would tolerate no future protests that could disrupt their operations. No protests are permitted on train platforms or in trains, although the transit authority did set aside a special area away from those locations where protests may occur.
While BART officials say they believe their actions were legal; the ACLU and others are questioning this assertion.
Federal law prohibits cell phone jamming. According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC):
“Use of jamming devices can place you or other people in danger. For instance, jammers can prevent 9-1-1 and other emergency calls from getting through or interfere with law enforcement communications (ambulance, fire, police, etc). In order to protect the public and ensure access to emergency and other communications services, without interference, the FCC strictly prohibits the use, marketing, manufacture, and sale of jammers.”
On its website, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting consumers freedom of speech, privacy, and other rights in the digital realm, compares BART’s actions to censorship in Iran and Egypt.
They also questioned whether mobile carriers were involved shut down, or whether BART did it all on its own.
This is a topic we will all want to keep a close eye on as events unfold. What if any action the federal government will take in response to BART’S action will be very interesting, and will give us clues as to what we may expect in the future with regard to curbs on the free flow of information via mobile devices.