SAN FRANCISCO -- On August 11th, the Bay Area Rapid Transit authority cut cellphone service in four of its stations in an attempt to disrupt anticipated protests. Those protests never materialized. Instead, BART attracted public and legal attention, drew the condemnation of the internet group Anonymous, and catapulted itself into the great global dialogue about the relationship between the rights of people and the technology they use.
BART's service cut was the first time anyone has discovered US law enforcement cutting cell phone and internet connections in an attempt to control protesters - probably the first time it had ever happened. Before long San Franciscans were decrying the move, Egyptians were comparing BART to their own deposed Mubarak, and the uncounted legions of Anonymous were gearing up for a fight.
On Wednesday, the BART Board met surrounded by a phalanx of police, to talk about the cellphone service cutoff, with both the public and each other. The BART Board is the ultimate overseer of BART. It is responsible for dealing with the legal consequences from this action, but was not consulted on the telephone cut. It's also charged with coming up with a policy for how the police deal with cell networks.
Legal or not, a protest-motivated cellphone service cut is scary. It happened that I was there August 11th, getting off at one of the impacted BART stops to meet a friend nearby. I noticed the phones weren't working, but when I got off my train into the Civic Center station, one of the four stations cut off, I was surrounded by BART police in riot gear, BART employees patrolling around in yellow safety vests, and news crews. Now when I looked at my phone it was sinister; not on the fritz, but taken away by men with guns. They seemed more sinister now too, reaching across modes to take my link to the world away. I got up top and tweeted: "Cell phone service killed on BART today in downtown SF. W/o a doubt meant to thwart protestors."
I may have been one of the first to talk about it, but I didn't really understand its significance, and I was running late. I made a snarky comment, and moved on. Others were quicker to grasp what it meant.
Anonymous launched #opBart, an operation to protest policies, disrupt train service or perhaps have the BART police disbanded altogether- depending on when you were looking at Twitter. For Anonymous, the possible problems and abuses of BART police were secondary to the cell service cut. It's often hard to say anything generally true about Anonymous, but it is safe to say they are extreme free speech advocates.
The August 22nd protest at Civic Center called for by Anonymous' opBart was for a while more well attended by the press than protestors. Within a 15 minutes of protests beginning on the platform, the station was declared closed and all entrances gated, with one door left for people to get out. The trains started passing Civic Center instead of stopping. A strong BART police presence hustled everyone, riders, a knot of protestors, and the press out of the door left open.
Whether Anonymous will have more targets in US law enforcement from incidents of cutting access and phone service will be revealed in the next few months. "Unless the FCC acts to make this clear, we have to worry that somebody else (another law enforcement agency) might want to try it," says Feld. He is worried by the implications. "It wouldn't have occurred to me that people would turn off the phones in this country until a couple of weeks ago."
Images: Steve Rhodes/Flickr.