Following an investigation into a public transit authority that cut off mobile phone service amid a protest earlier this year, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) said recently that it would attempt to outline the circumstances under which officials may legally disrupt wireless communications in the U.S.
In a release last week (PDF), FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski noted that his staff had been investigating the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) authority’s preemptive disconnection of mobile phone towers in their subway system: an action that stymied a demonstration which aimed to shut down one of the train platforms as a protest of police brutality.
A similar tactic was attempted by Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak ahead of an angry revolutionary tide that toppled his government early this year. The order to cut off the entire country’s access to the Internet and mobile networks — which was carried out by Mubarak’s corporate partners in the West — was ultimately a tipping point that drove even more people into the streets.
Facing a media backlash against the disruption of cellular service in August, BART spokesman Linton Johnson blamed protesters for creating an unsafe situation. He argued that BART administrators committed to the action, which was not outlined by policy, in order to preserve public safety.
The FCC’s guidance was issued just before BART took a vote on a new policy (PDF) that approves disconnections, but limits interruptions to “extraordinary circumstances” like the threat of a bomb with a cellular detonator, or if officials have evidence of “imminent” criminal activity.
The new policy also specifically recognizes that “any interruption of cellular service poses serious risks to public safety and that available open communications networks are critical to our economy and democracy.”
Praising that last line, Genachowski insisted that the FCC is “committed to ensuring that communications technologies are harnessed to protect the public, and that first responders and other public safety officers have the tools they need for their important work.”
“For interruption 0f communications service to be permissible or advisable, it must clear a high substantive and procedural bar,” he wrote.
That bar has not yet been set — but according to Genachowski, it will be, and soon.
“The legal and policy issues raised by the type of wireless service interruption at issue here are significant and complex,” he concluded. “I have asked Commission staff to review these critical issues and consider the constraints that the Communications Act, First Amendment, and other laws and policies place upon potential service interruptions. We will soon announce an open, public process to provide guidance on these issues.”
A schedule for the FCC’s public input process on potential communications disruptions has not yet been set.
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