CHICAGO -- Protesters will be flocking to Chicago for May's G-8 and NATO summits armed with smartphones, video cameras and links to social media sites they'll use for strategizing and sharing images of what's happening – right in front of a police force known for responding with tough tactics.
Now a city councilman wants to forbid the police department from pulling the plug on the electronic communication during the events, taking away a tactic employed by authorities during a crackdown on democratic protests in Egypt and during protests in the San Francisco Bay Area last year.
"We're putting down a marker and saying this has happened in other places and we don't even want it considered here," said Alderman Ricardo Munoz, who proposed his anti-crackdown ordinance at a Chicago City Council meeting Wednesday, after which it was referred to a committee.
Munoz said he has no indication police are contemplating shutting down cellphone use or social media sites. A police department spokeswoman said Superintendent Garry McCarthy has no plans to take such a step.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel's office has said the same thing. But after he was asked Wednesday whether he was concerned that an ordinance could hamstring the police department's ability to react to an emergency, Emanuel would only say that "Garry and Al (Wysinger, McCarthy's first deputy superintendent) are working with the alderman on that."
Munoz's determination to take the tactic off the table is an acknowledgement that the front line at mass protests is increasingly technological as officials and protesters search for a balance between security and freedom of speech.
It also illustrates a growing nervousness about potential clashes in a city where the police force is dogged by memories of officers clubbing protesters during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. More recently, the police were admonished by a judge for the way they arrested masses of demonstrators during a 2003 Iraq War protest, and the city announced last week it was paying more than $6 million to settle a lawsuit.
"Chicago has a painful history going back to the Red Squad and 1968," said Munoz, referring to a police intelligence unit that into the 1970s spied on everyone from anti-war activists to the PTA.
While police handled Occupy Chicago protests last year without a major incident, larger-scale protests at world summits have occasionally resulted in violence. Outside a World Trade Organization summit in 1999, police fired tear gas and rubber bullets into massive crowds and arrested 600 people. The G-20 and G-8 summits in Toronto in 2010 witnessed 900 detentions.
Recent Occupy protests in Oakland have resulted in rock-throwing, tear gas and hundreds of arrests. In one tense standoff, riot police temporarily confiscated the protesters' sound system.
In San Francisco last year, transit officials were roundly criticized after cutting off cellphone use in subway stations to disrupt planning for a protest over a transit police shooting. Bay Area Rapid Transit officials defended the action as legal but later passed a policy to allow such a move only in response to extraordinary threats.
BART was the first and only government agency in the U.S. to block electronic communications as a way to quell social unrest, but its ensuing policy was also the only one of its kind, according to Linda Lye, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney.
More infamously, the Egyptian government shut down all Internet access last year after demonstrators used social media to coordinate protests and circulate images of brutality during the government crackdown. The move backfired – protests intensified and the government eventually fell.
"In this day and age, social media is central to the First Amendment," said Andy Thayer, a Chicago activist who is helping plan the NATO/G8 protests. He said the ability to take photographs and video and post them on the Internet as events unfold is crucial for organizing and alerting the public.
Munoz's ordinance, a draft of which he gave to The Associated Press, explicitly prohibits the police from "shutting down mobile tower communications" during the summits, "using confiscated equipment to monitor or block mobile phone and Web access" and selectively blocking access to the Internet and social media sites.
McCarthy told reporters recently that police will not "do anything about the First Amendment except protect it."
But the City Council recently gave Emanuel extraordinary powers to make decisions regarding the summits in certain circumstances. And a spokeswoman for McCarthy would not say definitively that he wouldn't change his mind about blocking communications in an emergency.
Blocking cellphone and Web access is both exceedingly simple and complicated – the physical act of rendering cellphones and other hand-held electronic devices useless is as easy as flipping a switch at a base station of a cellphone tower. Officials also could use signal jamming devices similar to ones used by the military in war zones.
The legality of such steps isn't always clear, however.
"Under most circumstances they're not allowed to do that, (but) if there is a riot and rioters are burning a building, we don't know whether a temporary shutdown would be constitutional," said Eugene Volokh, a UCLA law professor who specializes in constitutional law and cyber law.
He said things get murky if police tried, for example, to take down a Facebook page where people are exchanging ideas about politics because one person is urging others to throw a Molotov cocktail at a particular building.
But some officers say the city shouldn't rule out blocking communications if protests get out of hand.
"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."