San Francisco subway shuts off cell service to combat protest: Civil rights groups 'furious'

Part of San Francisco's subway system's cell and wireless service was cut off amid a rising protest. Civil rights and liberties groups are furious; the FCC is 'concerned'.
Written by Zack Whittaker, Contributor

BART -- the Bay Area Rapid Transit subway system -- is embroiled in a civil rights dispute, after it asked operators to shut down cell and wireless service in four downtown San Francisco subway stations, amid an upcoming protest.

Activists had planned to protest the fatal shooting of a member of the public by a BART police officer last Sunday.

To avoid a "civil disturbance during commute times" and "platform overcrowding and unsafe conditions", BART opted to shut down the cell and wireless networks, after it was discovered that social media and phones were being used to organise the demonstration.

In a statement on the BART website:

"Organizers planning to disrupt BART service on August 11, 2011 stated they would use mobile devices to coordinate their disruptive activities and communicate about the location and number of BART Police.

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. BART temporarily interrupted service at select BART stations as one of many tactics to ensure the safety of everyone on the platform."

Civil rights campaigners and civil liberties groups are particularly concerned regarding the possibility that this affected First Amendment constitutional rights.

BART makes clear that: "No person shall conduct or participate in assemblies or demonstrations or engage in other expressive activities in the paid areas of BART stations, including BART cars and trains and BART station platforms."

In short, as one publication put it: once you're through the fare gates, "free speech isn't so free".

Senior staff attorney, Kevin Bankston with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a crucial member of the global civil rights and liberties campaign, highlighted that while BART did not employ phone blocking and jamming mechanisms -- methods prohibited by the FCC -- he had hoped and expected "that the FCC would have some serious questions for BART".

However, hacktivist group Anonymous, has already started promoting 'Operation BART' on Twitter, suggesting the group could plan and action hacks against the subway system's websites or operations.

This comes only days after British prime minister suggested the shutting down of cell and wireless services in areas affected by mass rioting.

London, and other major cities in the United Kingdom, was besieged by rioting over the past week, leading to a number of deaths and millions of pounds of damage.

Industry partners, including Facebook, Twitter and Research in Motion, will meet with the British home secretary shortly to discuss its roles and responsibilities during the riots.

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