Mobile technology may be a powerful tool for grassroots organizing, but the flip side of the coin is that authorities can block such technology when they wish to crack down on dissent — case in point, San Francisco’s public transit system. SF Weekly writes:
This might just be a first in the annals of Bay Area transit agencies’ political suppression (such as those annals are). BART has fessed up to jamming cell-phone signals yesterday at downtown stations in San Francisco in order to disrupt protests over the death of Charles Hill, who was shot by BART police on July 3.
Here is what BART had to say in a statement on its tactics that was released today:
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.
CNet reported that cell service was interrupted at four SF stations, and that BART acted unilaterally, only informing mobile-service providers after the fact.
Of course, BART’s move drew immediate howls from advocates of free speech and civil liberties. Here is what the ACLU of Northern California had to say in a blog post:
All over the world people are using mobile devices to organize protests against repressive regimes, and we rightly criticize governments that respond by shutting down cell service, saying it’s anti democratic and a violation of the right to free expression and assembly. Are we really willing to tolerate the same silencing of protest here in the United States?
Regardless of one’s personal stance on government’s power to impede free communication among its citizens — and BART seems to have taken great liberties with that power, to say the least — this reaction to protests seems boneheaded on a few levels.
For instance, isn’t it a terrible idea to cut off law-abiding passengers’ contact with the outside world at a time when potentially violent protests are taking place? What if somebody wanted to call 911, only to discover that he was unable to because of BART’s effort to suppress demonstrators?
It’s also a terrible PR move. In the aftermath of a controversial officer-involved fatal shooting, BART probably doesn’t want to invite comparison with the likes of, say, Hosni Mubarak. But that is exactly what it has done.