FCC wants input on cell service shutdown

BART Police are once again in the middle of a legal debate, this time regarding whether they have the right to cut off cell phone service at stations when they see fit.

Last August, cell service was cut at several BART stations for hours during a planned protest for what the department claimed was an attempt at improving safety.

The protest itself was aimed at condemning the fatal shooting of a man by a BART police officer at the Civic Center station. Protestors planned on using phones to coordinate the event in real-time by updating each other on police locations. The plan was nipped in the bud when service was simply shut off.

Free speech advocacy group Public Knowledge along with several others asked the Federal Communication Commission to immediately rule that BART had violated existing federal laws protecting cell phone networks from interference by government agencies.

In response, the FCC has issued a public notice asking whether regulatory guidance is needed during such circumstances and if it is, what kind of policies should be considered in the future.

Other groups argue that BART  violated people’s first amendment rights while simultaneously creating a greater potential danger because 70 percent of all emergency calls are now made on cell phones.

The issue is further complicated by the fact that today’s cell phones are much more than phones and have recently taken center stage at social uprisings around the world. No service means no ability to access the Internet and broadcast a news event from a first-person perspective.

BART’s unusual tactic was chillingly evocative of the Egyptian government’s move to shut off the Internet to its 80 million citizens to quell protests just 6 months earlier.

The FCC will be accepting comment on the issue through April 30.