Sunday, August 14, 2011

Shutting Down Social Media To Prevent A Mob

As a proponent of free speech, I've been conflicted about this situation:
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.”

I've decided it was the right thing to do.

From what I understand, commercial providers weren't employed at all in this situation; BART shut down what amounted to its own "towers" within its stations, towers that allow passengers to use their phones underground.

This is very different from censorship. Government didn't prevent anyone from using their cell phone, or prohibit a gathering at the stations. Government, in this case in the guise of BART, merely failed to assist the protesters, and didn't provide a free service by which they could coordinate their protest.

A few points are illustrated here. First, if you believe in government control over all utilities, understand that government can cut you off from those utilities if it so desires--to maintain "order" or some such. Perhaps you don't really want to give government that much control. Perhaps you like private control over certain businesses.

Second, don't expect government to help you "fight the man". Government has no obligation to assist people who want to violate the law.

I have two other points, but I'm not going to share them with the "hooligans" and thereby help them. If they want to wreak havoc, they can do so without my assistance.

What happened in San Francisco is very different from what's been proposed by the British Prime Minister in the wake of the riots there:
"And when people are using social media for violence we need to stop them. So we are working with the police, the intelligence services and industry to look at whether it would be right to stop people communicating via these websites and services when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality.

"I have also asked the police if they need any other new powers."
That, to me, is a little more disturbing than not providing a government-sponsored venue for coordinating your attacks. The potential for abuse is astronomically higher.

Update, 8/16/11: Wired has a story stating both sides of the issue:
Some constitutional scholars are likening BART’s actions to an unlawful suppression of First Amendment speech — a digital form of prior restraint. Others, however, say BART’s move would probably survive a court challenge, and will likely be copied by other government agencies as the use of mobile technology and social networking by protesters grows.

“You have the right to speak,” Damon Dunn, a First Amendment lawyer in Chicago, said in a telephone interview. “I don’t think you have the right to leverage your speech through technology that you don’t necessarily control yourself.”

I still don't have firm information on who owned the underground towers to which BART cut power. If BART owned them and used them to provide a free service, they could cut power to them at any time. If that isn't the case, I'd need further information to draw a conclusion about whether or not this is acceptable behavior by a government entity.

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