Groups petition FCC to declare BART illegally blocked cellphone access

A coalition of public interest groups on Monday urged the Federal Communications Commission to declare that a San Francisco transit agency acted illegally when it blocked cellphone service earlier this month.

In the petition to the FCC, the public interest groups argued Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) violated the Communications Act of 1934, when on Aug. 11 it shut down access to cellular networks in four downtown subway stations to disrupt a planned protest over a police shooting.

Service outside the stations was not affected. BART said the actions were necessary to protect passenger safety.

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In the following weeks, protests erupted over the cellphone disruption, and hacker group Anonymous attacked BART websites.

The groups signing the petition were Public Knowledge, the Center for Democracy and Technology, the Center for Media Justice, Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Media Access Project, the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council, the National Hispanic Media Coalition and the New America Foundation.

“The Commission must act swiftly to clarify that local authorities may not turn off wireless networks before other local jurisdictions seek to replicate the actions of BART," the groups wrote.

According to the petition, just suspecting illegal activity would not give BART the authority as a police agency to disrupt cell service.

If BART argued that it was acting as a network operator and not trying to use its powers as a government agency, it would still need the permission of the FCC to shut off service, the groups argued.

The petition also said shutting off cell service could prevent someone from dialing 911 during an emergency.

"BART’s past shutdown of [cellphone access], and its apparent plans for similar shutdowns in the future, raise grave concerns," the groups wrote. "More troubling, other local agencies may use similar shutdowns of [wireless] networks in the future — potentially disrupting access to communications relating to public safety and protected speech."

In a statement the day after the cellphone disruption, BART said its actions did not violate free speech rights, but the agency did not address the Communications Act concerns.

A spokesman for the FCC said on Monday the agency was reviewing the petition and continuing its assessment of BART's actions.

"BART has cooperated with the FCC in its review of this matter and will continue to do so," said BART spokesman Jim Allison.

--This story was updated at 4:08 p.m.