When British Prime Minister David Cameron learned this week that the rioting in London was directed by kids barely out of puberty over social networks like FaceBook, Twitter and Blackberry messaging, he immediately called for a review that could lead to legislation to take down those networks in the event of another technology-fueled looting.
Minds more open---albeit with arguably less responsibility---immediately reminded him that when Hosni Mubarek took down the communication networks in Egypt during their period of unrest, Mubarek was widely criticized for a very similar action.
Then San Francisco got into the act.
The Bay Area Rapid Transit, their version of our MTA, caught wind of a burgeoning civil action of protest to take place within four of their stations so they went directly to cell phone service providers and asked them to temporarily interrupt service in those stations. It worked. From the San Francisco Times:
“According to the statement published in the BART web site, the protesters were planning to disrupt BART service on Thursday, claiming that they would "use mobile devices to coordinate their disruptive activities and communicate about the location and number of BART Police. “To provide, safe, secure, efficient, reliable, and clean transportation services,” BART took this measure "as one of many tactics to ensure the safety of everyone on the platform." BART emphasized that the cell phone service was only interrupted inside their stations, not outside of any station."
“Outrageous!” cried civil liberty advocates, suggesting the people on the platforms were now at risk for not being connected at least as much as they would be subjected to any rush-hour protest. Those with longer memories might recall a time when being out in public without a cell connection wasn’t considered being at risk, it was just being out in public. Still, the criticism is clear and compelling so the question is this:
Does government have an obligation or right to cut off a communication network when there is solid evidence that the system is being used to direct rioting and looting as we witnessed in the UK last week? Were we wrong to criticize Mubarek?
How about a municipal transportation system like the MTA?
And if they do have that right then does exercising it trespass on constitutionally protected speech, freedom of assembly, perhaps a Fourth Amendment “right to bear phones” ?
Conversely, if they don’t have that right and must allow a network to be used to facilitate lawless behavior, would Cameron’s government or BART then reasonably qualify for a limit of liability to damage, injury or even a related death when they are blocked from taking control like this?
Riot curtailment or freedom of Tweets?
What do you think?