Last week I wrote about how some British politicians wanted BlackBerry maker Research In Motion to shut down its BlackBerry Messenger service in central London because the technology was being used to help organize riots. The government never demanded that, but the mere thought of it was enough to get me to question whether the politicians were treading on dangerous ground and violating free speech rights, despite their lofty intentions to prevent riots.
It was no great surprise when Egypt's former President Hosni Mubarak resorted to shutting off phone and Internet service, but it's a bit unthinkable that a tactic like that would be used in a democratic country like the United Kingdom.
Well, think again. After I filed last week's column, the issue hit a lot closer to home. BART officials -- in the San Francisco Bay Area where I live -- did what some London politicians only dreamed of. They suspended cellphone service by pulling the plug on equipment that enables signals from the major cell providers to reach people in BART's underground stations and trains.
BART was quick to point out that they didn't jam signals (that would violate federal law) but disabled their own equipment, which they had earlier installed as a convenience to customers. Jamming is illegal, but there is no law that requires BART or anyone else to put in special equipment to make cellular service accessible to people using their facilities. After all, there was a time when cell service simply wasn't available in BART underground stations.
But it seems to me that once BART installed the equipment, disabling it for the purpose of cutting off communications -- whatever the motivation -- is treading on dangerous ground. It's also important to remember that BART is a public agency -- essentially an arm of the government. And when government interferes with the communications of citizens, it brings up a lot of issues for anyone who cares about civil liberties. I'll leave it up to the Federal Communications Commission and others to decide whether what BART did was illegal. But as far as I'm concerned, it was at the very least boneheaded.
I know the arguments. BART was worried about a planned protest getting out of hand and reportedly made the decision in the interest of public safety.
Courts have ruled that there are limitations to free speech, including yelling "Fire!" in a crowded theater. But I'm not sure that preventing protesters from using their cellphones to talk, tweet and text rises to the same level of threat to the public.
It's not as if this is the first time anyone has used communications technology to organize a protest. Printing presses, mimeograph machines and bullhorns were used for that purpose long before cellphones came along, and any attempt to shut down presses in a democratic society is generally roundly condemned regardless of what those presses were printing.
We can debate whether the public was any safer as a result of cutting cell service. But even if a safety claim could be made for shutting down service, an equally compelling claim could be made that BART's action jeopardized public safety. By shutting down all service, they made it impossible for BART commuters who are doctors or other first responders to be reached in an event of an emergency. And BART also made it impossible for its customers -- including those who had nothing to do with the protest -- to use their phones to report an emergency, to call home to say that the protest might delay their journey or to make other arrangements to get home.
It could be argued that the protest made it more important than ever to allow people to use their phones. After all, if BART is worried that a protest could threaten safety, that's all the more reason for people to have phones in case there were injuries or threats that needed to be reported.
As I said about the London riots, police have an absolute right to arrest people who are breaking the law, and anyone who disrupts train service ought to know that their illegal actions could land them in jail. But there's a big difference between punishing people who break the law and blocking off communication systems just because some might use them to plan an illegal action.
Based on that theory, none of us should have the right to use the phone or even carry on a personal conversation. You never know what those two people sitting next to you in the coffee shop might be plotting.
This post is adapted from an article that first appeared in the San Jose Mercury News