San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit is defending the system’s order to shut down commuters’ cell-phone service last August.
BART’s actions fueled a considerable amount of negative reaction. Digital rights groups have spoken out against government agencies assuming the ability to shut down wireless coverage as a matter of policy.
“BART is a government agency, and the First Amendment prevents the government from censoring communications. Also, federal law—the Communications Act—outlaws both the government and carriers from interfering with wireless service,” said Rebecca Jeschke, spokesperson for the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
‘A Necessary Tool’
The FCC promised a probe into the incident last December and has been seeking public comment. BART filed its defense with the Federal Communications Commission on April 30.
The filing by BART General Manager Grace Crunican said shutting down cell phone service can protect the public and employees from wrongful use of wireless devices that could result in harm. The August shutdown was intended to quell an alleged protest BART officials said they feared could escalate into a riot like one that occurred in London where cell phones were used by rioters to text information to one another.
“A temporary interruption of cell phone service, under extreme circumstances where harm and destruction are imminent, is a necessary tool to protect passengers and respond to potential acts of terrorism or other acts of violence,” Crunican wrote.
Tool of Authoritarian Regimes
In their own filing with the FCC, eight groups, including EEF, Public Knowledge, Free Press, and the Center for Democracy and Technology, said shutting down wireless service threatens public safety and First Amendment rights and violates federal telecommunications laws.
The groups also pointed out disrupting wireless service also disrupts service for everyone in the affected area, thereby impeding their ability to make emergency calls.
“Interruptions made in advance of a predicted emergency will prevent others from calling emergency services about unrelated and unforeseen emergencies. Interruptions made reactively to a situation compound this problem with the fact that first responders will be deprived of additional information from bystanders as the situation unfolds,” the groups said in their filing.
The filing also lists several examples of foreign governments that shut down wireless service to block political organizing activity or suppress political expression. Recent examples include the governments of Iraq, Pakistan, China, and Kazakhstan.
“To the extent local, federal, or state governments in the United States may engage in similar shutdowns, they would be emulating—and providing a dangerously legitimating example for—authoritarian regimes across the world that have engaged in or would like to engage in wireless service interruptions to stifle free expression,” the groups wrote in their filing.
Since last August, BART has issued a cell phone shutdown policy which was heavily criticized by the opposition groups.
“Can you imagine any carrier disrupting communications if they don’t like what a few people might say on their cell phones?” Jeschke asked.
“As the joint filing articulates, the FCC has the authority to prohibit such service interruptions by carriers. On the other hand, the question with regard to state and local government involvement is not so much what the FCC can do, but whether—as courts have often found—such local government actions violate the First Amendment and other laws,” said Matt Wood, policy director at Free Press.
“We want the FCC to rule that neither the government nor private wireless services can shutdown wireless service for flimsy reasons,” Jeschke said.
Alyssa Carducci ([email protected]) writes from Tampa, Florida.