On January 27, 2011, the Egyptian government almost completely blocked the entire country’s internet and cell phone service in an attempt to quell the largest planned protest in their country’s Arab Spring. Whether is be by initial reports of a few quick telephone calls or as Wired.com informs almost two weeks later possibly by the flick of a switch, the effect was the same. Immediate and almost absolute technological communication blackout for not just the protestors, but every citizen, business and entity within Egypt and their connection to the outside world for six days.
Flash-forward seven months and comparisons to Egypt are being made on the west coast of the United States. The San Francisco Gate states that on July 3, 2011, a San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transportation police officer was forced to fatally shoot a knife-wielding Charles Blair Hill attacking him at the Civil Center Station. Protests sprouted up immediately and lead to rush hour transit service disruptions.
A similar demonstration was planned on August 11. Scientific America reports that BART authorities knew that the protestors were coordinating on their cellphones. BART owns the fiber-optic network that runs through its transit system call WiFi Rail that cellular services like AT&T and Verizon utilize. BART made the decision to simply switch their system off, cutting off outside cellular signal to their transit system and the protest never materialized.
“Both of these examples violate every humans’ core right of freedom of speech,” says Devin Helmes, former news anchor for KVTV in Fort Worth, Texas. “There is absolutely no reason why any government should ever shutdown, restrict or hamper any method of communication. The long term effects of suppressing speech on society far out way the imminent danger that this suppressed speech is supposed to be protecting it from.”
Some argue BART is different because while it is open to public use, it is private property and there are all of the freedoms in a public square do not necessarily apply. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority in New York City requires permits for musicians on their property while on the public streets above they do not. According to San Franscisco Gate, BART spokesman Linton Johnson with that sentiment that BART patrons “don’t have the right to free speech inside the fare gates.”
“The difference between the two is commercial,” argues Helmes. “Generally, musicians are performing for profit; and like any other vendor, they should need a permit for their business. On the other hand, cellular and Wi-Fi capabilities are available for the public to communicate freely to other people. Communication, in its simplest form, is an undeniable human right. Thus, having the ability to speak on a phone or use a computer is a basic human right that should not be regulated.”