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Why the BART Cell-Phone Shutdown Matters

BY Micah L. Sifry | Tuesday, September 27 2011

PdF friend and conference '10 speaker Susan Crawford has a smart oped piece up on Bloomberg discussing the issues recently raised in San Francisco by Bay Area Rapid Transit's cutoff of public cell phone service during some protest marches against police brutality. BART's action has led to an emergency petition by a coalition of consumer and digital rights groups, asking the FCC to take action to uphold free speech. Crawford writes:

When Earl Warren was California’s attorney general in 1942, he wanted the phone company to cut off service to a man suspected of involvement with illegal gambling. A California court ruled that disconnection was unjustified, saying that a telephone company had no right to refuse access to its facilities because of a mere belief that the wires would be used for illegal purposes.

The same logic prompted a 1955 Alabama court to rule that Birmingham’s public safety commissioner, Eugene “Bull” Connor, couldn’t order the phone company to halt service based on mere suspicion. “The unconstitutional and extra- judicial enlargement of coercive governmental power is a frightening and cancerous growth on our body politic,” the court said.

Cell phone access, and more broadly all forms of civic communication, is a tool for making the public safer, Crawford adds, noting that BART had originally installed cell service on its trains after 9-11. Now its spokesman is claiming that it was some nebulous desire to protect public safety that justifies its shutting off of that same service.

The ball, Crawford notes, is now in the FCC's court. "If the FCC slow-rolls this one, or accepts BART’s decision and sides with those who believe that phone service is a convenience that can be banned for any reason, other local officials will undoubtedly adopt BART’s tactics," she writes.

Such a response would undercut the American tradition of open communications across public, general- purpose networks. This petition is about more than avoiding bothersome texting; it deals with the future of the digital age in America. Government officials around the world have found it very easy to cut off communications when times are tense.