August 14, 2011

BART, Cell Phones, Lenin, and a Steel Cage

Controversy continues to rage over the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) District's unilateral decision to follow in the footsteps of Egypt's now fallen dictator Hosni Mubarak, by cutting off cell phone services in an attempt to quell protests (in BART's case, a protest that didn't actually occur).

The "Anonymous" group has today already hacked BART's external Web sites in response, and more protests triggered by BART's actions may be forthcoming.

Is comparing Mubarak and BART unfair? Over the top? After all, various U.S. observers have been supporting BART's decision, saying that riders really didn't need cell service at those locations, didn't have it in those locales a relatively few years ago, and have suggested that pretty much anything was acceptable in the name of proactively preserving "public safety" -- even in the face of nonexistent protesters.

And since luckily it appears that no critical phone calls ("Sorry, I can't reach the doctor's cell phone!") were blocked as a result of BART's action, it's no harm, no foul, right?

Wrong. Dead wrong.

In fact, BART's actions were a betrayal of the public trust, via the arbitrary interruption of services that patrons had come to expect, just as water and power can't be arbitrarily removed via the logic that "years ago you wouldn't have had it at all!"

BART may have been the local "custodian" of the cell services in question, but these facilities were actually apparently operated by the cellular carriers themselves.

Let's see how BART announced the expansion of cellular services just a few years ago:

"Underground cellphone coverage on BART expands: Whatever you think of cellphones on BART -- love 'em to call for that ride at the station, hate 'em when people are loud and rude -- cell coverage for underground stations and trackways is expanding ... In 2009, the cellular carriers plan to extend service through the Transbay Tube and into the downtown Oakland stations."

Pretty clearly, the expansion was in the hands of the carriers, not BART. Even more interestingly, BART appears to be noting that some people may not like having cell service along the route -- but they're going to have to live with it anyway. Free speech and all that, right?

Unless you're BART itself.

But BART has now invoked the public safety defense -- even though no protest was in progress and no emergency was currently transpiring.

"Public safety" prohibitions on communications can be morphed into a wide variety of free speech violations with a minimum of effort. We can be sure that the official reason for the cutoff of telecom services during the recent Egyptian uprising -- a cutoff that was roundly condemned by government leaders here in the U.S. and around the world -- was justified by Egyptian officials on "public safety" grounds, not political expediencies.

But there's a fundamental fallacy behind the reasoning of BART officials, and other Western leaders, such as UK Prime Minister David Cameron, who is now calling for the censoring of social media to prevent uprisings -- a stance being applauded by China!

It just won't work. And history tells us why.

Since we've seen an increase in protests being organized via high-tech methods such as the Internet and cell phones, officials have fallen into the trap of assuming that the blocking, censoring, or removal of those technologies will prevent large scale protests (and sometimes associated violence) from occurring.

But tell that to the crowds protesting the Vietnam war at the 1968 Democratic Convention. Or the masses of humanity gathered in revolutionary Russia in 1917. Or the innumerable other protests and gatherings -- many political, often enormous, not infrequently violent -- that have occurred here in the U.S. and around the world stretching back to the dawn of the 20th century and earlier.

I guarantee you this much -- prior to around 1977 or so in this country, not one single individual attending any of those protests was organized through the use of a cell phone. Go back far enough, and even ordinary landline phone availability would have been rare or nonexistent.

Yes, cell phones today help people organize in all sorts of ways. But they are not necessary prerequisites to protests (peaceful or not). Take away people's cell phone service, and if they want to protest they can still find ways to organize and deploy, just as they did before cell phones and the Internet were developed.

So this really seems to be fairly simple overall. Cutting off cell phone services won't stop people from protesting, may inflame their passions even more, and runs the risk of collateral damage to innocent parties who were depending on those services being available for a range of legitimate purposes.

But hey, if officials still want to give cell phone censorship a try, that's up to them.

It worked out just great for Mubarak. He's currently on trial for his life, from inside a steel cage.

Perhaps would-be U.S. telecom censors will have better luck.


Posted by Lauren at August 14, 2011 06:28 PM | Permalink
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