The Electronic Frontier Foundation, Public Knowledge, and the Center for Democracy and Technology have implored the Federal Communications Commission to prohibit federal, state, and local governments from resorting to cell phone shutdowns. The request stems an FCC inquiry from 2011 regarding the incident where the Bay Area Transit Authority shut down cell phone activity in order to hopefully suppress protests related to the killing of Charles Hill.
BART allegedly had information from a “credible” source that protesters had planned to disrupt transit on August 11, 2011, to demonstrate against the killing of Hill. BART believed that the protesters had planned to organize via cell phone communication, so between 4PM and 8PM, the time that protesters had planned to gather, BART shutdown cell phone service throughout parts of its system.
The attempt to disrupt the protesters was widely condemned and it’s been said that the move may even have been illegal. Pro-democracy groups have decried BART’s decision to jam cell phones, saying it’s a violation of rights protected by the First Amendment. Sherwin Siy, of Public Knowledge, detailed the ways in which such an action by a government entity violates the Federal Communications Act. The EFF has submitted comments to the FCC about the cell phone jamming, comparing the act to similar practices in countries with oppressive governments, Egypt and Syria, and saying that it violates the public’s First Amendment rights.
Yesterday, BART defended its actions in a letter to the FCC, saying that the temporary interruption of cell phone service was “a necessary tool to protect passengers and response to potential acts of terrorism or other acts of violence.” The letter, written by BART General Manager Grace Crunican, goes on to enumerate fantastic scenarios including cell phones disguised as bombs used to kill passengers and flood the transit tunnels.
As much as that is a truly spectacular fantasy, the act of protest is much, much older than cell phone technology and so, even though protesters may have been relying on the devices as a means to organize, shutting down cell phone service is no way to prevent protesters from causing disruptions in the transit system. Further, the shutdown hindered the ability of transit passengers who probably need that service, too.
Although BART has since ratified a new policy that states the organization will not turn off cell phone service in circumstances like that of the August 2011 shutdown, the actions of BART set a dangerous precedent for other governments to use similar tactics. It is with this caution that the advocacy groups have requested that the FCC expressly forbid any body of government from resorting to a cell phone shutdown in the future. Hopefully, the FCC will take their words to heart.