photo by Ed Yourdon

Last Thursday, March 1, “the FCC issued a Public Notice seeking comment on concerns and issues related to intentional interruptions of wireless service by government authorities for the purpose of ensuring public safety.”

The focus on intentional interruptions in wireless service was triggered in part by the August 11, 2011 decision of San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit (“BART”) to interrupt cell phone service in its stations for three hours in an effort to quell planned protests. The protests came in response to the killing of a homeless man, Charles Blair Hill, who was shot by police at BART’s Civic Center Station on July 3, 2011 when he advanced on two officers while holding a knife.

BART explained on its website the day after last August’s intentional interruption that “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 of BART Police.” The BART statement went on to note that the interruption was “one of many tactics [used] to ensure the safety of everyone on the platform.”

According to BART, service was interrupted only inside BART stations and numerous BART Police officers were present in those stations at the time to accommodate customers seeking assistance and to address safety concerns. However, the interruption was implemented without notice to the FCC or the California Public Utilities Commission.

After BART received criticism regarding its decision to interrupt wireless service as part of its efforts to hinder the August protests, in December 2011, BART adopted a new “extraordinary circumstances” policy outlining that a “temporary interruption could be implemented only when BART ‘ . . . determines that there is strong evidence of imminent unlawful activity that threatens the safety of District passengers, employees and other members of the public . . . ‘ ” A New York Times article reported that BART spokeswoman Luna Salaver has said that the new policy would not have permitted the August 2011 intentional interruption; instead, law-breaking protestors would have been arrested.

The FCC is now seeking comment on a number of concerns regarding the intentional wireless service interruptions, including whether the FCC has authority over the issue. Furthermore, noting that 70 percent of all 911 calls originate from wireless phones, the FCC has asked for comments from wireless providers regarding whether they can ensure the public’s ability to make 911 calls during an intentional service interruption.

In announcing the request for public comment, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said, “Any interruption of wireless services raises serious legal and policy issues, and must meet a very high bar. The FCC, as the agency with oversight of our communications networks, is committed to preserving their availability and openness, and to harnessing communications technologies to protect the public.”

The FCC is accepting comments on the issue through April 30, 2012.

– Kathleen Meyers

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2 Responses to FCC Considers Intentional Wireless Service Interruptions

  1. Brandon Trout says:

    I agree with Kendall that this does raise some serious concerns as far as blocking an important means of communication. Further, however, I wonder how the right to assemble/protest is implicated by this? If a governmental agency can shut down cellphone service that is used to organize a protest, how far does that go? Intercepting mail? Email? Using cellphone jammers on Occupy Wallstreet?
    While I don’t think that we’re moving into 1984, the implications of the government being able to shut down cell service, especially when it is being used to protest, is quite concerning.

  2. Kendall Short says:

    Initially I feel like this raises some major concerns if what appears to be a quasi-governmental entity can block people’s access to a significant means of communication. If the protesters adhered to any required procedures to protest, then BART shouldn’t have tried to quash their efforts by restricting their ability to communicate, as that seems to raise some free speech issues depending on BART’s status with the government. This could open up the door to other organizations using wireless interruption as a means of controlling the speech of those on their premises (somewhat like private companies restricting which websites people can access on their systems or governments targeted in the Arab Spring blocking social media to control protests). I think the FCC should regulate this to make sure that governmental entities are abiding by any applicable constitutional requirements before this slides down the slippery slope toward a tactic of oppression rather than so-called protection.