US Cell Phone Service Provider Shuts Down Services to Disrupt Potential Protest

There’s some disturbing news coming out of the United States. BART, a San Francisco cell phone service provider that provides cellphone services for subways, shut down all services after rumors circulated that a protest might occur. An official did confirm that this was the sole reason for shuttering services.

Note: This is an article I wrote that was published elsewhere first. It has been republished here for archival purposes

Accusations of censorship are flying right now over the move to shut down the services to disrupt a protest in the US. A report from SFGate details a story about a subway cell phone service provider shutting down cell phone services to disrupt a rumored planned protest against police officers accused of shooting a knife-wielding man to death.

From the report:

“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 stop them,” said Michael Risher, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California. “It’s outrageous that in San Francisco, BART is doing the same thing.”

A BART official confirmed that the reason for the shutdown was to try and disrupt the planned protest, but used the excuse of safety:

“Organizers planning to disrupt BART service stated they would use mobile devices to coordinate their disruptive activities and communicate about the location and number of BART Police,” the transit agency said. “A civil disturbance during commute times at busy downtown San Francisco stations could lead to platform overcrowding and unsafe conditions for BART customers, employees and demonstrators.”

Other civil rights groups are also outraged at the move. From the EFF:

This week, EFF has seen censorship stories move closer and closer to home — first Iran, then the UK, and now San Francisco, an early locus of the modern free speech movement. Operators of the Bay Area Rapid Transit system (BART) shut down cell phone service to four stations in downtown San Francisco yesterday in response to a planned protest. Last month, protesters disrupted BART service in response to the fatal shooting of Charles Blair Hill by BART police on July 3rd. Thursday’s protest failed to materialize, possibly because the disruption of cell phone service made organization and coordination difficult.

Early reports indicated that BART cut off cell phone service by approaching carriers directly and asking them to turn service off. Later statements by James Allison, deputy chief communications officer for BART, assert “BART staff or contractors shut down power to the nodes and alerted the cell carriers” after the fact. AT&T, Sprint, Verizon, and T-Mobile have not yet made comment as to whether or not they were complicit in the shutdown.

Obviously, we’d like to know exactly what the carriers said to BART, but many other unanswered questions remain as well. Was pulling the plug on people’s phones a quick, on-the-spot decision, or part of a protest-response plan vetted by BART’s lawyers? Who decided that blocking all cellphone calls at these BART stations was the right response to news that there might be a protest? Were the carriers ever in the loop about this plan or action? Who decided that the news of this planned protest justified the shutdown? How do we know this isn’t going to happen again?

The move comes on the heels of UK Prime Minister David Cameron wanting to stop people from communicating on social media in the midst of the UK riots.

I, for one, am not one bit surprised some are comparing this to things that Mubarak would do. I’m also not surprised others are saying this is a clear case of infringement of free speech. If anything else, this will only serve to make awareness of the “No Justice, No BART” protest explode in to public consciousness like never before thanks to the efforts to censor it.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Google+.

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