Several public interest groups on Monday asked the Federal Communications Commission to declare that San Francisco transportation officials broke telecom laws by halting cellphone service ahead of planned demonstrations earlier this month.

Public Knowledge, the Center for Democracy and Technology, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation said Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) didn’t have the authority to shut down cell service in some stations to deter organizers of a planned Aug. 11 protest.

They focused their petition on alleged violations of communications law.

FCC spokesman Neil Grace said that the agency received the petition and that officials are “reviewing the petition and are continuing our assessment to collect information about BART’s actions and the important issues those actions raised.”

The public interest groups said BART’s actions set a dangerous example.

“The recent statements by BART directors, as well as the possibility that other local jurisdictions may act to interfere with [mobile phone networks] in similar situations, demonstrate that the Commission must not wait on the outcome of its investigation into this specific incident to clarify the law generally,” the public interest groups said.

BART’s decision has also invited criticism over free speech rights and prompted an attack by the hacker group Anonymous. BART has been compared to the governments of China and Egypt, which have clamped down on information to disrupt civil protests.

BART officials defended their decision to stop cell service at some stations on Aug. 11, saying the temporary shutdown was legal and was intended to keep passengers safe. The service shutdown was meant to prevent demonstrators from organizing outside of designated areas, BART said.

But public interest groups said BART didn’t have the legal authority to shut down cell service.

BART spokesman Jim Allison said that on Aug. 12, the FCC asked the San Francisco area transportation authority for information related to its cell service shutdown. He defended its actions as “completely legal” and said BART may consider similar action with future protests. He said the BART board is preparing a policy on communications.

Protests this summer were set off by a fatal police shooting at a BART station. Allison said that protesters were calling for demonstrations on platforms and that one organizer got on top of a train.

“This is very dangerous,” Allison said. “If there are similar situations in which there are clear indications that there is imminent lawless activity coordinated by cellphone users, this would remain an option.”


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