Last August, the Bay Area Rapid Transit District in California shut down wireless service at some stations because it was concerned about planned protests at those stations.
That move prompted digital rights groups to accuse BART of violating federal telecommunications law, which generally prohibits law enforcement officials from cutting off telephone service. Public Knowledge, the Center for Democracy & Technology, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and other groups asked the Federal Communications Commission to slap down BART for shutting off service. "It has been settled law for decades that law enforcement agencies have no authority to order discontinuation of phone service on mere suspicion of illegal activity without due process," the groups said in papers seeking a declaratory judgment against BART.
This week, the FCC officially said it will consider the issue. "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 a notice seeking public comment. "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."
Public Knowledge cheered the news. "The same wireless network that police see as a tool for rioters to coordinate is the same wireless network used by peaceful protesters to exercise our fundamental freedoms," legal director Harold Feld said in a statement. "More than that, in any event, the network will be necessary for people in the area to call for help or to let family members know they are not harmed."
For its part, BART adopted a new policy last December, when it said it would block wireless systems only if it has "strong evidence of imminent unlawful activity that threatens the safety of district passengers, employees and other members of the public, the destruction of district property, or the substantial disruption of public transit services."