FCC mulls whether police should be able to black out cellphones

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) issued a request on Friday for public comment on whether government agencies should be allowed to block access to cellphone networks.

The request stems from an incident last summer, when a San Francisco transit agency shut off the transmitters that allow for cellphone reception in four underground subway stations to disrupt a planned protest over a police shooting.

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That protest never materialized, but the cellphone disruption led to weeks of protests and several cyberattacks on the transit agency's websites. Civil-liberties groups condemned the blackout as an intrusion on free speech, and compared it to crackdowns in Egypt and other authoritarian regimes. The FCC said it would probe whether the action was legal.  

“Our democracy, our society, and our safety all require communications networks that are available and open," FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said on Friday. "Any interruption of wireless services raises serious legal and policy issues, and must meet a very high bar. The FCC, as the agency with oversight of our communications networks, is committed to preserving their availability and openness, and to harnessing communications technologies to protect the public.”

After consulting with FCC officials, Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART), the San Francisco agency, issued a policy statement that it would only block cellphone service in “extraordinary circumstances,” such as to prevent a bombing or violent protest.

The FCC asked for comments on the circumstances that would justify a cell blackout and whether the blackout would be effective in protecting public safety. The agency also asked for comments on the risks involved in blocking wireless access, such as preventing people from being able to call 911.

The agency also asked what legal basis provides the authority to shut down cell networks and what procedures agencies should follow to avoid abuse.  

The FCC will accept comments for 60 days and then allow reply comments for another 30 days.

The agency will use the comments to determine whether it should provide guidelines to government agencies on blocking wireless access.