Silencing the Masses: Wireless Communications Blackouts

Protester talks into a cellular phone in front of
Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police officers
at the Civic Center station in San Francisco
© AP

By Anna Piekarzewski

The popular Blackberry messaging service as well as social networking sites Twitter and Facebook have come under fire for their role in facilitating the violence and looting that engulfed London last week. Speaking at an emergency session of Parliament, British Prime Minister David Cameron asked “whether it would be right to stop people communicating via these websites and services when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality”. Tory MP Louise Mensch has gone one step further, publicly voicing her support of social media blackouts during civil unrest.

Meanwhile, it seems that service providers in San Francisco have put this approach into practice. Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) authorities have released a statement admitting to temporarily disabling wireless service at several of its stations to ensure safety and maintain order after reports that cell phones would be used to organise a disruption on the BART system. The planned protests were in response to the July 3rd fatal shooting of Charles Hill by BART police.

These two scenarios are not identical, since as a private corporation BART claims that they should be able to exert full control over their infrastructure. Yet they both force us to consider whether disruptions of communications systems are justified in the name of public safety and security during times of unrest.
It is worthwhile to first examine the practical consequences of such a measure. Would suspending social media or wireless communications quell rioting and prevent violence? The recent uprising in Egypt where former President Mubarak attempted to suppress protests by obstructing internet service raises doubts as to the effectiveness of this tactic. While organising no doubt became more difficult, it was clear that this would not be enough to stop the momentum of revolution. In fact, switching off internet access may have strengthened the resolve of Egyptian people who could draw support from foreign authorities labelling the move as repressive, anti-democratic and despotic. Who is to say that cutting off access to social media during the London unrest would not have spurred greater violence in response to the state exerting such heavy-handed control? This backlash seems to be occurring in San Francisco, where cyber hacker group Anonymous has called for protests of the wireless disruption.

Beyond asking whether a service disruption would work, we must also ask what would be lost in the process. As Prime Minister Cameron himself acknowledged, the free flow of information can be used for both good and ill. Social media and wireless communication are important lifelines during crises, helping people locate loved ones or warn others about possible danger. Given the popularity of these services, they may be one of the most effective ways for authorities to get important information out to the public and could even be used to improve police response. Moreover, while some used messaging to coordinate looting, others took to Twitter and Facebook to organise clean-ups or raise funds for those affected by the violence. Perhaps best illustrating the multidimensional power of new media is the fact that MP Mensch herself turned to Twitter to broadcast her support for disrupting social media.

The particular focus on social media is itself questionable. While Twitter may reach a wider public audience, Blackberry messages remain between intended recipients, much like text messages. Is social media fundamentally more dangerous, requiring strict control, or did similar panic surround the introduction of other new communications technologies like telephones or e-mail?

Leaving aside the practicalities of how and whether communications services disruptions would work, we must ask whether such a measure could ever be justified. Many have called Cameron’s position hypocritical given his strong condemnation of the service disruptions in Egypt. Similar critiques have been levelled at BART authorities, with posts on Twitter using the label #muBARTek to draw the parallel. Whether such comparisons are fair is debatable, however they do raise the question of whether our state leaders would lose credibility critiquing repressive regimes if they themselves are encroaching on civil liberties.

The state has the responsibility to protect its citizens in times of distress, yet it must balance this need for order with upholding rights and liberties, not least freedom of expression and the right to information. As social media reveals its powerful potential for connecting people, we must guard against panicked calls to suppress what is not understood. While communications technologies may facilitate protests, they do not cause them. Perhaps the public would be better served by a state more willing to listen rather than one that wields silence as a weapon.

About the Author:

Anna Piekarzewski is a law student at McGill University in Montreal, Canada and a past intern at the International Council on Human Rights Policy. Her current research interests include privacy, information technologies and civil liberties, particularly as they relate to criminal and national security law.

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