Chicago Fights for the Right… to Facebook

Chicago Fights for the Right… to Facebook

Mobile technology’s role as a protest tool is sparking debate in Chicago, as an alderman seeks to protect freedom of speech by ensuring the right to access Facebook and Twitter during this spring’s NATO/G8 Summit.

Chicago Alderman Ricardo Munoz wants to make sure police don’t interfere with mobile phone reception to ensure protesters’ rights to demonstrate when the city hosts the summits. The city council expects protests during the high-profile meetings and Munoz worries the police will resort to measures blocking cell reception to interfere with protestors organizing via texting and social media.

“We’re putting down a marker and saying, this has happened in other places and we don’t even want it considered here,” Munoz explained, supporting the protestors’ right to organize by making sure law enforcement doesn’t block cell reception to thwart their efforts.

Munoz’s proposal speaks to social media and mobile technology’s growing roles in political demonstrations and protests. Organizers readying for the Chicago protests depend on Twitter, Facebook, SMS and other mobile technology to communicate, just as activists and protestors used these platforms to organize during the Arab spring, the London riots and the Occupy movement.

Protests can grow violent and law enforcement officials must navigate the difficult path between ensuring citizens’ rights and preventing dangerous behavior. This challenge, however, grows problematic, as mobile communication, which the greater population relies on as well, is now a cornerstone in organizing and coordinating social protest.

Some cities seek to police the connection between mobile technology and dissent, even by shutting it down, but Munoz believes suppressing phone reception is akin to blocking protestors’ First Amendment rights. Munoz wants to avoid an incident like San Francisco’s BART episode, where authorities drew fire for shutting off mobile reception on public transit during protests.

The public transit team successfully prevented the protest, but it endured heavy criticism and retaliation from hacktivist group Anonymous afterwards. Following the controversy, San Francisco’s public transportation officials drafted a proposal limiting future network cut-offs, a move designed to appease angry activists and prevent other incidents.

Other cities plan to use San Francisco’s proposal as a guideline, as it recommends shutting off cell reception only in the event of an extreme terrorist attack, but Chicago police themselves want to retain the right to decide when to pull the plug, despite Munoz’s push. Chicago’s law enforcement do not want any sweeping measures taking away options to control potentially violent crowds.

“I’m just concerned about officer safety and citizen safety,” said Mike Shields, head of the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police. “If we have to take this action, if it’s within the framework of the Constitution, then we have to consider it.”

Social media and mobile communication, however, are increasingly considered rights, not privileges. As these tools grow more crucial to the right to organize, governments are likely to struggle for more control over them.

Chicago police have a difficult history with protestors, dating back to the disastrous Democratic National Convention in 1969. If law enforcement officials choose to interfere with cell reception, they risk certain backlash but as they consider their strategy to balance protests with security during this important event, they are facing pressure from city officials like Munoz.

There will likely be demonstrations no matter what and the choice may come down to whether police want to deal with a full-fledged G8 protests or criticism over blocked cell phone service to thwart protesters at the high-profile, potentially incendiary event.

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