Public interest groups requested the Federal Communications Commission condemn San Francisco transit authorities’ decision to block cell service, as the otherwise-isolated event becomes a heated national dilemma.
Public Knowledge, along with six other advocacy groups, said San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit, or BART, broke national law when it shut off wireless service to prevent an August 11 protest, and has brought a petition to the FCC to rule the shutdown illegal.
“The petition isn’t really about punishing BART so much as making sure that this sort of problem won’t arise in the future,” said Sherwin Siy, deputy legal director at Public Knowledge. “We hope that the FCC will clarify for other local authorities around the country that shutting off cell service isn’t just a bad idea, it’s also against the law.”
The petition cites the Communications Act, which says wireless carriers must not “discontinue, reduce, or impair service to a community, or part of a community” without FCC approval.
It also mentions the 1942 case People v. Brophy, which says no state official can suspend phone service on the “mere assertion that illegal activity might take place.”
In response, BART spokesman Bob Franklin reiterated of the blackout, “The intent was to protect passenger safety, not to stop a protest.”
Franklin said August 11 protesters had planned to chain themselves to BART trains in a tunnel at the bottom of the San Francisco bay, potentially trapping 8,000 passengers.
Responding to the argument that the three-hour shutdown prevented people from dialing 911, Franklin said, “Every few feet, there was either a police officer or someone with a radio,” he added. “If you had an emergency, you turned to your right or your left and said, ‘I have an emergency.’”
For its part, the FCC will continue to investigate both sides’ arguments under an increasingly bright spotlight.
If the FCC rules in favor of BART, other transportation agencies across the U.S. will have permission to repeat wireless shutdowns as they deem necessary. For this reason, public transportation officials across the country are likely keeping tabs on the San Francisco case.
Various public rights groups, however, say this nullifies freedom of speech and compare it to former Egyptian President Hosnai Mubarak’s decision to axe cell service during his country’s winter protests. They point out that while the U.S. roundly condemned Mubarak, the government has not similarly come out against San Francisco’s transit authority.
Robert McDowell of the FCC, though he cannot yet speak to his organization’s position, did say at a recent event that protestors and rights groups raise “very valid points,” suggesting the agency may put the burden of proof on BART to justify its actions.
Whatever the FCC decides, it will likely continue to draw attention from a wide audience. The hacktivist group Anonymous is keeping the debate front and center by organizing protests and hacking BART websites.
The latest protest, which occurred last night, resulted in two arrests, in addition to the 35 people taken in during another demonstration last Monday.
Despite Hurricane Irene’s dominance in the news, the BART protests over mobile service shutdowns are still making headlines and will probably continue to do so until the FCC judgment arrives.