Thursday, August 18, 2011

San Francisco mobile cutoff reeks of Arab authoritarianism

In an unexpected move for such a liberal U.S. city, San Francisco’s mass transport system shut off subterranean cell phone networks last week in an attempt to halt a planned protest. Since then, San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transport (BART) has faced criticism from not only the protest organizers but also a member of its board of directors, American civil liberties organizations and activists from across the world.

The demonstration organized for last Thursday by a cluster of groups called ‘No Justice, No BART’ was in protest of a BART police officer who shot dead a man in one of the subway’s stations on July 3. BART police said the 45-year-old victim had a knife.

On July 11, the protest group briefly shut down three BART subway stations. So, in preparation for the group’s second planned demonstration, BART shut off subterranean cell phone networks. The transport company defended the move by saying their goal was to protect passengers, adding that the protest group had said it would use mobile technology to communicate and organize.

The action is uncannily reminiscent of world dictators who use telecommunications regulation to keep themselves in power. In Egypt, a five-day telecom blackout was intended to halt a mass uprising that just a few weeks later toppled the country’s 30-year dictator.

“In Egypt, we so painfully felt the deadly impact of cutting off communications,” Egyptian activist Mohamed Abdelfattah told me. Abdelfattah was on the streets in Egypt’s Mediterranean city of Alexandria during the 18-day uprising. “During demos, we couldn’t reach families or friends or ambulances.”

“It's incredibly hilarious to hear such a tactic is used in a country that prides itself in promotion of democracy and human rights,” he added.

The so-called democratic “West” consistently denounces attempts across the world to block public unrest or expression with telecom limitations. Yet when faced with demonstrations at home, Western leaders – and apparently transportation authorities – are surprisingly quick to jump to the same tactics.

Just days before the San Francisco incident, British Prime Minister David Cameron considered “limiting” online social networking in an attempt to reign in riots in London.

On Friday afternoon BART officials acknowledged jamming underground cell services from 4-7pm on Thursday to prevent protesters from coordinating plans to stop trains.

“This group seems to want to challenge BART, challenge the police department,” Lt. Andy Alkire told CBS San Francisco. He called the decision to shutdown cell phone service on the subway platforms “a great tool to utilize for this specific purpose.” He did, however, call it an unusual measure.

The would-be protesters (who never materialized on Thursday) and others are furious with BART’s decision. An online petition titled, ‘BART: Stay Out of Our Cell Phone Service!’ received over 3,000 signatures from across the globe overnight.

Some activists have done more than create a petition: a group of anonymous hackers broke into a BART-affiliated website yesterday and posted contact information for more than 2,000 customers as a way to get back at the transportation authority.

The Associated Press called those calling for new demonstrations against BART “anarchists.”

Many are questioning the constitutionality of BART’s decision. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, some civil libertarians “predicted legal action, or at least serious investigation by the Federal Communications Commission.”

In addition to denouncing BART’s move, the online petition states, “the FCC [Federal Communication Commission] has frequently published warnings in the past regarding the illegal nature of jamming cell phone services.”

The Associated Press reported that even a member of BART’s board of directors denounced the action. “I'm just shocked that they didn't think about the implications of this. We really don't have the right to be this type of censor," Lynette Sweet, a member of BART’s board, told the AP. “In my opinion, we've let the actions of a few people affect everybody. And that's not fair."

What Sweet says is “not fair” is exactly the reasoning BART’s deputy police chief used to defend the action. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, police chief Benson Fairow “said that BART considered the free speech implications posed by the cell phone shutdown but decided that those rights were outweighed by the need to protect the public.”

In response to my inquiry, BART Deputy Chief Communications Officer James Allison sent the following statement via e-mail: “BART temporarily interrupted service at select BART stations as one of many tactics to ensure the safety of everyone on the platform.

“Paid areas of BART stations are reserved for ticketed passengers who are boarding, exiting or waiting for BART cars and trains, or for authorized BART personnel. 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.”

The statement also said BART “accommodates expressive activities” that are protected by the U.S. and California State Constitution and “has made available certain areas of its property for expressive activity.”

The statement added that cell phone services outside BART platforms were not interrupted and that security personnel were standing by for customers seeking assistance.

It must be noted that BART did not ask cell phone providers to shut down towers near its stations or jam wireless signals. According to the Chronicle, BART owns and controls its subterranean wireless network and BART police ordered it switched off “after receiving permission from BART interim General Manager Sherwood Wakeman, former general counsel for the transit district.”

Thus, no one outside the subway system was affected.

Even so, Abdelfattah, who began attending demonstrations in Egypt long before January 25, said it is never acceptable to shut down communications. He recalls being powerless when friends were killed or injured during Egypt’s uprising, without the ability to call for help. “We then realized the state should never have any control over communications,” he said.

“Being able to communicate is an irrefutable human right and cutting [communications] off in such a mass arbitrary manner should be regarded as a collective punishment,” he added.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) agrees with Abdelfattah.

"All over the world, people are using mobile devices to protest oppressive regimes, and governments are shutting down cell phone towers and the Internet to stop them," Michael Risher, a staff attorney for the ACLU in Northern California, told the San Francisco Chronicle. "It's outrageous that in San Francisco, BART is doing the same thing."

"We don't want the government turning off cell phones in Syria, and we don't want them turning off cell phones here," said Patricia Shean, 72, told the Chronicle. "We deal with things differently here."

“It seems true that each country has its own particular fight for democracy and rights,” said Abdelfattah.

This article was originally published on August 15 at Youm7 English Edition (offline since Jan 2012).