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Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Facebook Police: Blocking Cellphones, Saving Lives...?

A BART train in the station.
In "Is Social Media Free Speech" I discussed the nature of things like Facebook relative to free speech.

Today we have the California Bay Area Transport (BART) in the  news for shutting off cellphone (I've always wondered why Google spell check thinks "cellphone" is one word but not "highschool") coverage inside its tunnels as a planned mechanism to limit an anticipated protest.

Apparently in the recent past a BART police officer (and why do thing like BART or the NY Subway have their own police forces? Are the crimes somehow different?) shot a homeless man who was supposedly wielding a knife.  The protest was related in someway to this event.

In anticipation of the event BART turned off cellphone coverage in four of its stations for several hours. One of the reasons was ostensibly that, like London, the protestors would be using cellphones and social media to coordinate the protests (see this).

So now we have an interesting dilemma.

On the one hand, using social media to coordinate a riot protest would be a crime - though a crime if and only if it was not approved by the government and did not remain peaceful.  (I've often wondered about violent protests against those who conduct violence on innocents.)

On the other hand, what if grandma has a heart attack during her ride and no one can call for help so she subsequently dies?

Neither event happened - no riot protest, nobody's grandma is dead.

And BART claims that since it owns the cell antenna's in its stations it has the right to do what it like with them.

But what if their actions bring harm to others - even indirectly?  Isn't cell service today like a utility?  Something people rely on for daily on-going life? Can I rely on cell coverage to coordinate the pickup of needed medicine?  A ride to the hospital?  A life and death matter with a doctor?

Certainly there would be problems shutting off power to a few blocks of the city in anticipation of trouble.

As for cellphone "blocking" the US Criminal Code 47, Sections 301, 302a, 333 says that "The Act prohibits any person from willfully or maliciously interfering with the radio communications of any station licensed or authorized under the Act or operated by the U.S. government. 47 U.S.C. Section 333. The manufacture, importation, sale or offer for sale, including advertising, of devices designed to block or jam wireless transmissions is prohibited. 47 U.S.C. Section 302a(b). Parties in violation of these provisions may be subject to the penalties set out in 47 U.S.C. Sections 501-510. Fines for a first offense can range as high as $11,000 for each violation or imprisonment for up to one year, and the device used may also be seized and forfeited to the U.S. government."

Cell jammers are illegal so one imagines that shutting off a cell antenna is a similar problem.

The problem here is that government, in this case BART in the guise of the State of California has taken it upon itself to limit your free speech in anticipation of you doing something illegal or wrong with that free speech.

Mind you there is a difference between texting "meet me in front of Joe's Diner" and "help me destroy Joe's Diner" and "OMG I can't believe what's happening at Joe's Diner."

In the first and last cases I may or may not know why I am to meet at Joe's - leaving other events or evidence to determine if I am involved in the "conspiracy" to trash Joe's Diner.  In the second case merely showing up is proof of my involvement in a conspiracy to damage the diner.

And even if previous public Facebook plans are made to riot protest in a BART station doesn't shutting off cell service leave the remaining patrons without a means to call for help?  The riot protest has already been coordinated - its not like someone is actively standing on the BART platform publicly calling for assistance in rioting protesting.  (If they were it would be like shouting "fire" in a theater - there are already laws on the books to address that.)

Instead I think that BART is acting more like a building owner who chains the EXIT doors of a theater reasoning that there won't be a fire.

It seems like BART is taking the view that some or all of its patrons are potentially guilty of conspiring to riot protest illegally and therefore it is okay to deny everyone else their rights to use their phones for which they have paid, for which the service providers have paid, and for which services have become a public "utility" like power or water.

Sadly this sort of "you must be guilty" action of the part of government has been creeping into society for years.  If, for example, police find drugs on one person in a car in most states you, who have none, are also considered "guilty" do to an implicit conspiracy.

The long term effect of these types of laws and actions such as BART create chilling societal effects.

For example, I no longer give anyone I do not know a ride.  Why?  Because I don't know what you might have on you and I do not want to pay the price for your stupidity should I be stopped.

This makes society a less friendly place in general because those that are responsible are treated as if they are not.

Another effect is that, since you treat me as if I were a criminal or outlaw in the first place, then I lose nothing by acting like one.

Actions such as BARTs make using the subway a negative choice for patrons - particularly if they have need of communication while in route.

It seems like all of this is the slow and steady drive to "thought crime".  Social media makes it easier for the government to "listen in" on what the citizenry is up to (due to their own ignorance or lack of understanding that posting it on a publicly viewable website might be a crime).

Of course, this will only catch "stupid" criminals who Facebook about their criminal activities.

Which will lead to 'profiling' of the stupid and criminals.

Which will lead to making places like Facebook 'fairer' so that the stupid and criminal are not singled out.

Which will lead to more government agencies to help stupid people use Facebook "properly".

Which will lead to the "virtual Facebook police".

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