Is it ever okay for a government agency to shut down your wireless service?
The Federal Communications Commission has apparently decided it is time to get some clarity on that issue, and so has begun soliciting public comments on when and how public agencies can interrupt service.
The FCC’s action stems in part from a three-hour wireless service shutdown last August by Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART)—the commuter rail system that serves the San Francisco Bay Area. BART authorities shut down wireless access in some BART stations to thwart a protest pegged to an incident a month earlier, when a BART police officer shot a man to death after the man lunged at the officer with a knife.
BART said it interrupted wireless service because it wanted to prevent protesters from using their mobile devices to organize transit-service disruptions on the BART system that, agency officials said, would have compromised rider safety. Many BART passengers and the American Civil Liberties Union called it an attempt to stifle free speech. They also claimed that the service disruption, which was unannounced, could have done more to compromise passenger safety than the protests. According to the FCC, about 70% of all 911 calls now originate from wireless phones.
A difficult balancing act
The FCC promised to investigate BART’s action and in December BART’s board adopted a policy declaring that a temporary interruption of cell phone service wouldn’t be allowed unless the agency “determines that there is strong evidence of imminent unlawful activity that threatens the safety of district passengers, employees and other members of the public.”
Last week the FCC acknowledged that there are times when mobile service can be used for nefarious purposes, such as detonating a bomb or organizing violent mob activity. But the agency’s policy review also recognizes that public safety relies heavily wireless communication and that blocking service raises serious legal issues.
“Any intentional interruption of wireless service, no matter how brief or localized, raises significant concerns and implicates substantial legal and policy questions,” the FCC said in its public notice. “We are concerned that there has been insufficient discussion, analysis, and consideration of the questions raised by intentional interruptions of wireless service by government authorities.”
The agency will field public comments on the issue in an attempt to address six areas of concern: past practices and precedents; the bases for interrupting wireless service; the risks associated with service interruptions; the scope of interruptions (i.e. would 911 access be preserved), the agencies that are authorized to shut down service; and the legal constraints on service shutdowns.
The FCC is accepting comments on the six topics until April 30.