Monday, October 24, 2011

FCC responds to complaint over BART phone service disruption

A few weeks ago, I filed a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission against the Bay Area Rapid Transit agency after it shut down cell repeaters in its tunnels in an apparent attempt to stifle a protest.

It turns out, I was one of many who complained to the FCC about the disruption. Today, I got a mailed response from the FCC about the situation. Here it is:

It's a form letter. In fact, other people got the exact same letter a month ago. But it's a bit heartening to see that the matter wasn't dismissed out of hand. Will the FCC come down on BART for its disruption?

Perhaps to peremptorily address the issue, the BART Board of Directors will be discussing a cell phone disruption policy at its Thursday (Oct. 27) meeting. This policy, said to include input from the ACLU and BART's Citizen's Review Board, would enable BART to disrupt cell service "only when [the District] determines that there is strong evidence of imminent unlawful activity that threatens the safety of District passengers, employees and other members of the public, the destruction of District property, or the substantial disruption of public transit services."

I'm a bit troubled by the ambiguity of the statement. Under the policy above, the previous disruption -- of which I seriously disapprove -- would still have been possible had BART's general manager approved of it beforehand.

While the draft policy does include a few examples of the "extraordinary circumstances" in which a disruption is possible, the list is still ambiguous. Listed among those special circumstances are when phones are used: as explosive detonators; to facilitate "violent criminal activity ... such as hostage situations"; in specific plans to destroy BART property; and when there are plans to "substantially disrupt public transit services." If, for example, a few members of OpBART plan to briefly prevent a train from moving (as happened at an earlier protest), is that a "substantial" disruption of public transit services?

As it is, without an exception for non-violent civil disobedience, I don't see how this policy would result in any difference than the phone service disruption we saw in August.

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