S.F. subway system admits cutting cellphone service to stop planned protest
Demonstrators shut down a BART station in July to protest the shooting death of 45-year-old Charles Hill.
August 13th, 2011
07:36 PM ET

S.F. subway system admits cutting cellphone service to stop planned protest

In a controversial move that has riled up free speech advocates, San Francisco's Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) subway system said it cut off cellphone signals at “select” stations in response to a planned protest this week.

“BART temporarily interrupted service at select BART stations as one of many tactics to ensure the safety of everyone on the platform,” the transit agency said in a statement on its website Friday.

BART said it took the actions because protesters said they “would use mobile devices to coordinate their disruptive activities and communicate about the location and number of BART Police.”

Demonstrators had planned a rally to bring attention to a number of transit police officer shootings, the latest one resulting in the death of 45-year-old Charles Hill, who was shot last month after a confrontation with officers.

The transit agency said protests during rush hour endangered the safety of commuters and employees.

“A civil disturbance during commute times at busy downtown San Francisco stations could lead to platform overcrowding and unsafe conditions for BART customers, employees and demonstrators,” the agency said.

The incident happened Thursday, the same day that British Prime Minister David Cameron proposed a crackdown on social media to quell riots.

"Everyone watching these horrific actions will be struck by how they were organized via social media," Cameron said Thursday during an address to Parliament. "Free flow of information can be used for good. But it can also be used for ill. And when people are using social media for violence, we need to stop them."

Protesters in San Francisco have used websites and social media to organize demonstrations, including a rally last month that shut down a subway stop.

On Saturday, a BART director said the cellphone shutdown was not authorized by higher-ups and was under investigation, according to the Bay Citizen newspaper. “This is a transit agency, and our job is not to censor people,” BART official Lynette Sweet was quoted as saying.

The ACLU also denounced the cellphone shutdown, likening it to strong-arm tactics used by other governments.

“Shutting down access to mobile phones is the wrong response to political protests, whether it’s halfway around the world or right here at home,” the ACLU of Northern California said on its website.

The petition site, Care2.com, started an online petition titled “BART: Stay Out of Our Cell Phone Service!” On Saturday evening the site had more than doubled its signature goal of 1,000.

Also the hacktivist group Anonymous said it would be targeting BART on Monday to retaliate, several news sites reported Saturday.

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Filed under: Crime • Justice • San Francisco • U.S.
soundoff (486 Responses)
  1. Just Thinking

    I think it depends on whether BART was blocking the service or turning off there own "repeaters" that permitted access from the subway.
    You can't be required to aid someone protesting against you but you should not block service that you are not enabling.

    August 13, 2011 at 9:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • Chris

      Well said. That's it in a nutshell.

      August 13, 2011 at 9:21 pm | Report abuse |
    • Poop Flinger

      Once turned on those repeaters become public communications venues.

      August 13, 2011 at 9:29 pm | Report abuse |
  2. bub

    So who decides when it's OK to suspend free speech? BART? The mayor?, the governor? A little freedom? A lot of freedom? The first amendment works just fine without an interpreter.

    August 13, 2011 at 9:04 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Frank

    I would expect no less from the Peoples Republic of San Francisco.

    August 13, 2011 at 9:06 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Htown

    Is this 1984?

    August 13, 2011 at 9:07 pm | Report abuse |
  5. JAM

    Last weekend at a computer security conference we discussed how to combat this very topic.. Wonder what they will do when the next round of bluetooth ad-hoc mesh network apps hit the market in the next year.. You can not quiet the voices of the people you can only lower their volume for a short while.

    August 13, 2011 at 9:07 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Godhelpusa

    So much for free speech... Can u imagine Iran doing the samething? All the western countries will conderm it..

    August 13, 2011 at 9:07 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Poop Flinger

    Under Obama the US has become Iran, China, Libya, and is getting worse by the day. Each time you pick up a paper you read how more and more civil liberties have been suspended by officials trying to maintain their status. ANd then worst of all, NOTHING GETS DONE ABOUT IT. Revolution is coming.

    August 13, 2011 at 9:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • steve

      Geeez ... what the heck does this have to do with Obama? This wasn't a federal issue... I am sure BART didn't call the White House for approval. C'mon folks get real

      August 13, 2011 at 9:30 pm | Report abuse |
    • ploopot

      This has nothing to do with Obama. And I'm not an Obama fan, just to be clear.

      August 13, 2011 at 9:30 pm | Report abuse |
    • Poop Flinger

      It's a Federal Communications Law that has been broken here. It is the Feds who should be on this like white on rice and making arrests. BART did this becasue Obama has made them think it is okay to take away civil rights and suspend communications laws.

      August 13, 2011 at 9:35 pm | Report abuse |
  8. texgil2762

    The ACLU is objecting to strong arm tactics??!! Ha ha! The pot calling the kettle black - oh, wait; can't say that. The ACLU would object to the word "black" as being racist in any context, I'm sure.

    August 13, 2011 at 9:11 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Bart Simpson

    @Bennet. No, not surprised. I mean look at US. Don't we need some more control? We can't even control our own eating habits. ABC news reported today that in every single State, save one, 1 out of every 5 american's aren't overweight...they are OBESE. since little things mean a lot, if we can't control our own natural desire for food, what other natural desires do we need Uncle Sam's help controlling? Just about all of them are out of control. If Uncle Sam stopped controlling us, we would do what? If the gov. stopped controlling our crime? We need controllled dude!

    August 13, 2011 at 9:12 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Marat

    You all are missing one thing here. BART did not block anyone's Service. BART provides underground cellular signals in certain parts of the route, without which, cell phones would get no reception since the train is underground. BART is providing a service to its riders by allowing cellular coverage in its system. BART isn't hacking phones or blocking them, it's simply shutting off its own cell phone system to prevent people from disrupting its operation. Big difference.

    August 13, 2011 at 9:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • Just Thinking

      I agree. There is a big difference and that is what makes the USA different. It wod be a much different story if they had truly blocked the service and I would think BART would be in legal trouble if it had.

      August 13, 2011 at 9:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • Poop Flinger

      Once service is established it can not be purposely interfered with without a court order doing so. No differant than the phone company shutting down a service because they suspect calls MIGHT BE made that contains questionable information. IT IS FEDERAL LAW!

      August 13, 2011 at 9:27 pm | Report abuse |
    • Seola

      P.F. – you are so sorely mistaken and misinformed, yet you keep spamming lies. No federal government can force anyone to provide a service, without terms, utility, indefinitely. BART is not telecommunication nor technology and only provides as a service. In fact, if they had knowledge the systems they maintain which are NOT covered by taxes (one of the marks for protections from the federal government) could be used to endanger someone, they could be held directly responsible under liability for not interrupting service.

      August 13, 2011 at 9:36 pm | Report abuse |
    • Seola

      It should also be noted the ability to access and telecommunications services does not give anyone the undeniable, irrevocable right to access, at any and all times any and all services available. Again, McD's provides wi-fi hotspots. Accessing it today doesn't mean you can access it for the rest of your life and that they must keep providing you with wi-fi.

      August 13, 2011 at 9:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • world press

      When that system was turned on it came under the mandate of federal communication laws, BART doesnt make its own rules, and has no right what so ever to touch them let alone shut them down!

      August 14, 2011 at 12:06 am | Report abuse |
  11. Justin

    You know we are moving to a socialist siciety with a dictator at its helm. What is really ironic is that we send over mobile cell towers to ensure that protestors in the middle east were able to communicate during their protests when the governemnt tried to shut down cell services and internet services over there. In the same breath they take away the american rights and try to control our lives like the same government they claim to be against. Watch out America, pretty soon if you open your mouth against the government you will be put in concentration camps and subject to torture because you are not pro socialist agenda, America, like many great civilizations is on the downward spiral to extinction. Prepare.

    August 13, 2011 at 9:16 pm | Report abuse |
    • Cheeto

      Do you even know what socialism is? Or are you one of those tea party nutjobs that just repeat what stands as the status quo for them? First of all, it was the LAST president that went above and beyond in suspending civil liberties and freedoms. Secondly, I think you and really everyone on here blathering on about free speech really need to read up on the Bill of Rights and try and understand what the 1st Amendment really means. You really just sound like a fool with all of this nonsense you're spouting off with.

      August 13, 2011 at 10:58 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Bigrig

    They are not BLOCKING calls, just not allowing THEIR repeaters to be used. They have no legal responsibility to provide that service. Saying they are blocking freedom of speech is like saying I am blocking it by not allowing passer-bys to use my wi-fi network to post to their blogs. Your freedom ends where someone else's begins!

    "The right to swing my fist ends where the other man's nose begins." Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

    August 13, 2011 at 9:19 pm | Report abuse |
    • world press

      They are not allowed to touch them once they are turned on,, owners or not!

      August 14, 2011 at 12:08 am | Report abuse |
    • Bigrig

      @world press
      Not allowed to touch them, their own equipment? How about in a few years when they are obsolete? The fact of the matter is that it is PRIVATE equipment. They can take it down for maintenance, upgrade, to prevent abuse or just because they want to. You seem to have an inflated opinion on what is a "right" to free speech. How about you try to walk into a newspaper and use their machinery to print your little protests. I'm sure the police and courts will explain what you do and do not have a right to use. The repeaters are provided as a convenience to customers. Riders are not promised or contractually obligated to receive such service. If they do not want to loose cell service they can just stay aboveground.

      August 14, 2011 at 12:25 am | Report abuse |
  13. Lack of self-control

    Where we lack in self-control the government makes-up for with governmental control. If the American people REALLY wanted less government intrusions into their daily lives, they would be controlling their own behavior. So wee need Uncle Sam to increase his control over US, not down-size. Besides...the government isn't any better at downsizing than we are. (20% nationwide obesity rate/epidemic)

    August 13, 2011 at 9:20 pm | Report abuse |
  14. levas

    If the only way to keep me safe is to shut off the cell phone service then do it. However, if there are other ways to block the use of the social media sites for unsafe protests, the please use those methods. And if the protestors are making cell phone calls or texting the location of police then BART has to prevent that sort of thing with whatever tools are available. I spent six years on a college campus during the Viet Nam war where protests involving 3000 students attacking police, burning police cars was not uncommon. It affected my studies. Back then, there were not even cell phones and the police could be overwhelmed. These protestors are narcissists who only care about themselves or else they would not endanger innocent bystanders.

    August 13, 2011 at 9:21 pm | Report abuse |
  15. FLVoter

    How about the safety aspect of shutting off communication portals? What if an emergency occured and no one is able to reach emergency personnel. Idiot decision and it should be illegal.

    August 13, 2011 at 9:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • Seola

      Oh gee, whatever did people do 10 years ago when not everyone had a cell phone!!! BTW, in the event of an emergency, there are call boxes, phones and some employees that could utilize their equipment. How many emergencies could have happened if people were pushed and shoved onto the tracks by a mob, versus a regular day in the system?

      August 13, 2011 at 9:40 pm | Report abuse |
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