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Digital public sector news, research & engagement

Monday 15 August 2011

'Free speech' row over California mobile phone shut-down

A California state senator has joined free speech groups in condemning the actions of San Francisco's Bay Area Rapid Transit Authority (BART) in shutting down mobile phone signals within its stations for nearly four hours last Thursday in an attempt to disrupt planned protests.

Labelling the move "authoritarian control tactics," Democratic California State Senator Leland Yee said BART's action "was not only a gross violation of free speech rights; it was irresponsible and compromised public safety. Riders need cell phone coverage to call on police and medical personnel during an emergency" (

Yee said he would be asking the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to look into the affair, becoming the latest in a series of free speech activists lining up to file complaints with the commission.

The planned protest followed the fatal shooting of a homeless man by transport police in July.

Rallying protestors around the imaginatively named Twitter hashtag #MuBARTek, the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation compared the move to the actions of repressive Middle Eastern regimes such as that of the former Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak, who shut down mobile phone networks in response to pro-democracy protests in the country's Tahrir Square (

BART has argued that it is entitled to uphold its own rules which state that travellers on its network agree not to "conduct or participate in assemblies or demonstrations or engage in other expressive activities in the paid areas of BART stations."

In a potentially interesting parallel with the actions of Mubarak earlier this year, the FCC said it was unclear whether BART had acted itself to cut off communications or simply asked mobile providers as a client to shut off their services. In Egypt, Mubarak took the latter course, and the networks had said they had had no option but to comply under the terms of their telecommunications supply contracts.

It does appear however as if BART's action has massively backfired: while the cellphone shut-down may indeed have played a part in disrupting planned protest action last Thursday - at any rate, it did not happen - the authority's website was warning commuters today that further protests are now planned over the shutdown itself. Agressive, shadowy hacker groups such as Anonymous have also weighed in, launching assaults on BART websites and IT systems.

The debate has keen resonance in the UK after the British prime minister and home secretary have announced they are looking into ways of blocking social media communication between rioters in any future recurrences of the recent looting and violence on city streets. Facebook, Twitter and Research in Motion (RIM), owner of the BlackBerry brand, have all said they will look into ways of helping - ranging from blocking signals to helping to track specific kinds of message - within our existing framework of privacy and interception of communications law.