On Friday, the Federal Communications Commission asked for public comment on whether police or a public agency should be able to shut down cellphone and internet service to protect public safety. The issue came to the FCC’s attention after the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit District (BART) turned off cellphone service for three hours last August to discourage a citizen protest against the fatal shooting of a man by a BART police officer.
Not only does cutting cellphone service violate the FCC’s ban on cellphone jammers or other communication interference; BART’s policy is reminiscent of the same suppression of free speech used during the Arab Spring protests last year. For instance, President Mubarak suspended Egypt’s internet and cellphone access on January 29, 2011 in response to escalating protests against his regime, shortly before he resigned and transferred control to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. Similarly, Iran limited internet access during protests of its 2009 presidential elections. Cellphones and the internet greatly contributed to the success of the Arab Spring by facilitating free speech. Limiting public dissent by blocking wireless communication is not only unconstitutional; it puts the United States in the same category as these authoritarian regimes.
BART argues that turning off service protects “the safety of district passengers, employees and other members of the public,” preventing substantial disruption of transit services and thwarting attempts to destroy District property. This policy not only conflicts with the FCC’s mission to promote the availability and openness of communications networks, but also does not take into account other safety risks posed by turning off cellphone service.
Seventy percent of 9-1-1 calls are now made by wireless phones – turning off cellphone service would prevent citizens from making necessary emergency calls for an ambulance, law enforcement assistance or to a fire station. Shutting down wireless service during a protest inherently interferes with free speech, preventing those who dissent with an agency’s opinion from joining others who would share their views.
The protection of free speech could be weighed against the District’s desire to adequately protect public safety. However, if applied to protests for this reason, then any large gathering could carry the risk of substantially disrupting public transit services or of destroying District property. To be consistent, BART would have to turn off wireless service after a 49ers game.
A broad policy of limiting or shutting down cellphone service or internet by a government agency poses serious risks to free speech, public safety and free communication and contradicts the FCC’s past policies. Learn more about the FCC’s call for comments here: http://transition.fcc.gov/Daily_Releases/Daily_Business/2012/db0301/DA-12-311A1.pdf Rhoads, Christopher, and Geoffrey A. Fowler. “Egypt Shuts Down Internet, Cellphone Services.” The Wall Street Journal, January 29, 2011. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703956604576110453371369740.html.  Ibid.  “Wireless 911 Services.” FCC.gov. http://www.fcc.gov/guides/wireless-911-services.