BART Emails Shed Light on San Francisco Cell Phone Shutdown

by Jared Skye 

 Are citizens of the United States guaranteed a constitutional right to cell phone and WiFi services? According to recently released emails from Bay Area Rapid Transit– or BART– in San Francisco, the answer is a firm “no.”

 BART came under fire in August for shutting down cell phone service in its stations in advance of oncoming protests. They were able to do this by shutting down power to the cell phone grid that uses BART tunnels to maintain consistent coverage throughout the city both above-ground and underground. They were originally unwilling to comment on the cell ban, but as the days pressed on they were willing to admit that they had done it with the direct aim of disrupting the protest.

 Their reasoning was that the protests were going to cause massive disruptions to commuters using the BART trains, and that the presence of protesters in the area presented unique dangers that could not be allowed. The idea of a protester falling onto the rail tracks was mentioned, as was the possibility of a violent interchange between police and protesters in the cramped space of an underground subway station. BART issued a statement after the cell shut down where they spoke about what a difficult decision it was to do this, but new emails have shed a little light on what actually went on that day.

 It turns out that the entire conversation took about 6 hours via email exchanges, with everyone involved showing a marked sense of excitement over the cell take-down. BART Police Lt. Kevin Franklin referred to protesters as “the bad guys,” and all of the email exchanges seemed to only concern themselves with how transit police would communicate with each other without the cell service. There were also questions regarding whether it would negatively impact communications with customers, since a press release had earlier stated that BART would communicate delays due to the protest to customers via text or phone call.

 The reason this has gained so much attention in the United States is because of a stark similarity between the actions of BART and the actions of the Mubarak regime in Egypt during the Arab Spring revolts of 2011. Protesters and free-speech activists have noted that the two organizations used the exact same tactics to shut down protesters, focusing on their ability to communicate with each other via cell phone and wireless connections. While the actions taken by BART cannot be fully compared to what turned out to be murderous military action taken by Mubarak during the Egyptian Uprising, the basic similarities are there. It has many people asking if this is the type of country they want to live in.

 BART officials stated in the emails that cell phone and WiFi coverage are not rights that are guaranteed by the constitution, and they’re right. However, with the growing proliferation of cell phone and wireless use to organize protests, it seems that the line is becoming harder to toe than ever. Activists have said that the very nature of the current state of technology has created a dependence upon these services for organization, and to deny those services is inherently opposed to free speech. At the very least, they say, it’s a violation of their right to use a service that they paid legal tender to receive in a manner that is in accordance with the law.


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