BART in San Francisco Cuts Cell Service to Avoid Protest

Technology control challenges freedom of speech

The past year has been monumental in showing the power of social media and cell phones as mobilization tools. From Facebook’s central role in the Arab Spring, to the more recent use of BBM and Twitter in the London riots, it is clear that logging in has become a new mode of resistance. Some fearful leaders are trying to figure out how to clamp down on those using these tools against the state.

This week alone, English Prime Minister David Cameron said he wanted to speak with tech giants about how to gain control over social media and communication hubs, should a riot threat once again present itself. And on Thursday, the San Francisco area had its own brush with communication interference.

San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit, or BART for short, cut access to cell service at four of its stations for three hours in order to head off protests over the shooting of a man by a BART police officer. BART’s actions were not technically a breach of any FCC code, since the transport service “asked wireless providers to temporarily interrupt service at select BART stations as one of many tactics to ensure the safety of everyone on the platform,” according to a statement from the transit authority.

BART has been the target of outrage since it successfully jammed cell signals at its stations. Hackers have already broadcasted their ire, with a digital flyer entitled “muBARTek,” a reference to the former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak’s own efforts to jam cell service in his country during mounting protests.

In response to the allegations that BART is infringing on first amendment rights to free speech, the transit service said, "BART accommodates expressive activities that are constitutionally protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and the Liberty of Speech Clause of the California Constitution (expressive activity), and has made available certain areas of its property for expressive activity…."