In response to a threatened protest in its subway system, San Francisco authorities temporarily shut down mobile phone service in the underground stations of the Bay Area Rapid Transit District, known locally as BART.
"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 officials said in a statement released on Friday concerning the threatened Thursday demonstration. "BART temporarily interrupted [mobile phone] service at select BART stations as one of many tactics to ensure the safety of everyone on the platform."
The statement also noted that although mobile phone service was curtailed during the expected protest period, train intercoms and courtesy telephones remained available for riders.
According to the local-news website SFist, the demonstration had been publicized by a group known as No Justice No BART in response to the July 3 fatal shooting by BART police of an intoxicated homeless man, Charles Hill, who had allegedly thrown a knife at an officer.
A protest of the shooting had disrupted BART service during the evening commute of July 11. For this Thursday's planned protest, SFist said, No Justice No BART had posted on its website that it wanted "to mobilize without public announcement beforehand" to preserve "the element of surprise". That posting was subsequently removed.
Unfortunately for No Justice No BART, their web posting was noticed, BART police were informed, and the mobile phone shutdown was instituted. The protest did not take place.
BART's mobile-phone shutdown brings to mind UK Prime Minister David Cameron's comments concerning the recent rioting that has roiled that country. Speaking to Pariament, Cameron said:
Everyone watching these horrific actions will be struck by how they were organized via social media. Free flow of information can be used for good. But it can also be used for ill. And when people are using social media for violence we need to stop them. So we are working with the police, the intelligence services and industry to look at whether it would be right to stop people communicating via these Web sites and services when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality.
Apparently the Bay Area Rapid Transit District is one step ahead of Cameron's efforts, at least when it comes to using prior restraint to prevent communication over the public mobile phone system.
BART's shutdown of mobile phone service is, at best, troubling. Although the system's electronic message boards had warned during the day of a possible demonstration during Thursday's commute, those warnings made no mention of a mobile-phone service shutdown.
As a result, tens of thousands of transit passengers were deprived of their expected service without warning. As is often the case when police clash with demonstrators – or, in this case, possiblle would-be demonstrators – it was the general public that was adversely affected.
The BART situation was a trivial inconvenience when compared with the savagery of the English rioting, but the response to it by some authorities raises the same spectre of prior restraint and unannounced limitation of individual freedoms. ®
Despite the naïveté displayed by No Justice No BART in expecting their web-based protest plans to go unnoticed by authorities, they're not digitally clueless. The group's Calendar of Events page lists a workshop to be held this Saturday entitled "Encrypt Yo' Shit: Computer Security For Radicals".