Yesterday evening around the time protesters were supposedly going to rally on the Civic Center BART platform, cell phone service from Civic Center to the transbay tube was cut off as part of what BART spokesman Jim Allison called "a larger strategy" used to prevent the possible demonstration. As the SFAppeal reports this afternoon, while that move may not have been illegal according to FCC regulations, it's at least highly suspect to some.
At a press conference last night, BART officials touted the cell shutdown as "a great tool to utilize for this specific purpose." That Orwellian comment had some activists from the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials rightfully creeped out. Although, BART went on record this afternoon to point out they didn't use any sort of cell phone jamming equipment (which the Appeal notes would be specifically forbidden by the FCC), the transit agency did claim they reached out to wireless carriers to ask them to "temporarily interrupt service at select BART stations" - a claim which a spokesperson for one of the major cell carriers says just isn't true.
Instead, BART Deputy Chief Benson Fairow told the Appeal that underground cell service is "something we provide to our customers" and admitted their contract with cell phone carriers includes a killswitch that the agency can use for safety issues.
So, on the one hand, we've got BART calling this a safety precaution and claiming protestors were on the platform, "clearly ready to take action, with backpacks and tools." (Or, in the parlance of Jack Ryan, "a clear and present danger".) And on the other hand, there's a free speech issue here: is it legal to disable communication to all riders on the basis of a rumored safety issue? EFF reps are saying no, but we'll have to wait until the FCC gets their hands on it to get a real ruling on this.
In the meantime, read on at the Appeal about the shutdown which the EFF called "an unprecedented situation in the U.S." and compared to protests in Syria.