FCC reviews government shutdown of wireless networks

The Federal Communications Commission announced Friday that it would review the intentional shutdown of wireless networks by government authorities, after transit officials in the Bay Area shut down cell phone networks amid protests.

The FCC said it would take comments from the public on the practice, saying there hasn’t been enough discussion around the debate over how public safety concerns are balanced with free speech rights.

The San Francisco episode last summer sparked complaints by public interest groups and residents that transit officials had trampled on the rights of protestors to use their wireless devices to organize demonstrations.

“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 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 Protests of the Bay Area Rapid Transit authority were set off by a fatal police shooting at a BART station. Police said they shut down cell phone service momentarily because they were afraid organizers of protests would endanger riders as people gathered on platforms.

Public interest group Public Knowledge praised the FCC’s review.

“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,” said legal director Harold Feld of Public Knowledge. “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.”

Cecilia Kang is a senior technology correspondent for The Washington Post.

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