Blocking mobile networks to quash protest? Already a reality in the US

Last Thursday evening, the Bay Area Rapid Transit authority in San Francisco — better known as BART — was worried about the consequences (and likely public relations mess) of a protest planned inside its subway system to denounce a fatal police shooting earlier this summer by BART police officers. As a preventive measure, BART deployed a tactic many commentators have since likened to Hosni Mubarak’s playbook: It shut down cell signal in four stations for several hours to prevent protesters from organising.

As it turns out, inviting comparisons to deposed Egyptian dictators — and at the historic epicenter of the US free-speech movement — posed a much bigger PR disaster than anything that would have come from a nonviolent police protest. More protests were then planned. Anonymous hacked BART’s website. The Federal Communications Commission is now looking into the incident. Several California politicians have expressed shock. And free speech advocates across the country are furious about a US precedent for exactly the type of social-media policy officials in the UK have been weighing since last week’s riots.

Making matters worse, BART officials have dug in to defend the decision rather than distance themselves from it, arguing that riders’ constitutional right to safety trumps protesters’ constitutional right to free speech. The agency has not promised it won’t deploy the same tactic again in the future.

“Inside the fare gates,” a BART spokesperson told a local TV channel, “is a non-public forum, and by law, by the Constitution, the U.S. Supreme Court, there is no right to free speech there.”

Eva Galperin with the Electronic Frontier Foundation was having none of this logic on EFF’s blog:

“Cell phone service has not always been available in BART stations. The advent of reliable service inside of stations is relatively recent. But once BART made the service available, cutting it off in order to prevent the organisation of a protest constitutes prior restrain on the free speech rights of every person in the station, whether they’re a protestor or a commuter. Freedom of expression is a fundamental human right. Censorship is not okay in Tahrir Square or Trafalgar Square, and it’s still not okay in Powell Street Station.”

The ACLU on Monday sent a letter to both BART and the Federal Communications Commission saying:

“BART’s actions must be seen in the context of today’s events. All over the world, people are using mobile devices to protest oppressive regimes, and governments are shutting down cell phone towers and the Internet to silence them. BART has never disrupted wireless service before, and chose to take this unprecendented measure for the first time last week in response to a protest of BART police. BART’s decision was in effect an effort by a government entity to silence its critics.”

Rex Huppke, a commentator with the Chicago Tribune, downplayed all the drama, underscoring that many people view electronic communication — and the right to freely text, email, or associate online — as some less legitimate version of free expression.

“We have more than enough ways to communicate in this day and age. Briefly losing access to a score update or a Facebook note about sushi or a message from work isn’t an assault on freedom.”

A year ago, BART might have gotten away with the move with less public outcry. But in the wake of the Arab Spring, any police action in the West that conjures up images of censorship in the Middle East will inevitably alarm Americans. Along with reaction to the riots in the UK, the BART incident has awoken many people to the reality that technology creates complex new means of censorship anywhere in the world.

Emily Badger is Index on Censorship’s US editor

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