Is It Ever OK To Block Social Media?

Friday, August 19, 2011

Transcript

When an authoritarian government blocks access to social media, democratic governments are quick to call foul.  But this summer's wave of flash mobs, looting and disruptive demonstrations are prompting authorities in democratic societies to explore cutting off access as well.  Faced with a large demonstration on a subway platform, San Francisco's Bay Area Rapid Transit recently cut off some cell phone service to block protesters from communicating. Bob spoke with BART deputy police Chief Daniel Hartwig about that decision and with the Electronic Frontier Foundation's Jillian York about the potentially dangerous precedent.

Comments [11]

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As a long time listener to the show I was disappointed in your coverage of the BART protests and the police decision to cut off cell phone access. What was totally not addressed by your show was that THE POLICE DEPARTMENT THAT SHUT OFF THE CELL SERVICE WAS THE TARGET OF THE ORIGINAL PROTEST FOR SHOOTING AND KILLING PASSENGERS.

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Oct. 28 2011 04:40 AM
Matthew Voorsanger from Bainbridge Island Washington

As a long time listener to the show I was disappointed in your coverage of the BART protests and the police decision to cut off cell phone access. What was totally not addressed by your show was that THE POLICE DEPARTMENT THAT SHUT OFF THE CELL SERVICE WAS THE TARGET OF THE ORIGINAL PROTEST FOR SHOOTING AND KILLING PASSENGERS. And even more disappointing was your failure to follow-up the statement by Chief Daniel Hartwig that no one has been injured in the protests with a discussion about the shootings. After making much about the more aggressive reporting in the British Media when your turn came around you just passed.

Aug. 28 2011 08:08 AM

HunterJE: "What we have is a government-run institution saying right out that it considers impinging on the constitutional rights of citizens something it does and a valid tool."

Exactly.

And those who don't believe that police departments should determine when constitutional rights are and aren't applicable should consider a membership in the Electronic Frontier Foundation: https://www.eff.org/

-- MrJM

Aug. 22 2011 10:48 AM
HunterJE from Kirkland, WA

There's a nasty hidden message to the repeated statement, "Suppression of first amendment rights is not what we lead with" -- first, it says they too consider what they're doing to be suppressing first amendment rights, and second that they consider that a perfectly valid tool, if not a first one. What we have is a government-run institution saying right out that it considers impinging on the constitutional rights of citizens something it does and a valid tool. Disturbing.

Aug. 21 2011 07:56 PM
Francisco from Newcastle upon Tyne, UK

I am worried that the British proposals will do a lot to steal our rights and liberties (and not do that much for public order).

Aug. 21 2011 01:08 PM
Toby from metro Atlanta

BART should not have shut down phone; a homeless guy was hastily & probably unjustly murdered because he threatened a cop with a glass bottle... instead of being tazed he was murdered. Shutting down the phones was not safe.
-in closing, it is not too far to call US police tyrannical. The war against users of arbitrarily-illegal drugs is tyrannical in the true sense of word; no poetic use of the word, but true tyranny, because the war on 'drugs' (actually certain arbitrarily chosen drugs) so horribly promotes suffering & prevents well-being for no good reason. That is only one instance... so, shutting down the phones wasn't as immoral as arresting a user of an illegal-drug, but it was dangerous at best.

Aug. 21 2011 11:57 AM
Rina from Philadelphia

Incident(s) in Philly, Bob. They're just beating the crap out of people for no reason. I think one guy is still in a coma. And they aren't gangs, they're kids, sociopaths for sure, but kids.

I doubt many residents of Philly would have any problem with blocking "social" media.

Aug. 21 2011 10:56 AM
Phil Edwards from Richmond, VA

Although I generally agree with stances the EFF has taken with respect to free speech, especially via networked communication technologies, I believe that Jillian York overreaches with her "slippery slope" argument in this particular instance. She hedges her criticism--unfairly, in my opinion--by saying that the actions of the BART police department simply "reflect" similarities to actions taken by repressive regimes, albeit on "very different scales". Yes, the BART police department would be well-served by being equipped to "monitor and pursue" individuals who are actually--and demonstrably, given the digital traces they leave behind--involved in stoking violent unrest; however, absent the capability to link individuals' speech with their actions in real time, turning off cellular service within a discrete, localized area based on a reasonable assessment of risk to individuals seems more akin to removing oxygen from a fire than "preemptively striking on expression". The distributed nature of networked communication empowers individuals to give voice to their concerns from nearly any location, even ones far removed from the site of an in-real-life protest--or, as it seems to be in this case, by walking a few steps to an area just outside of a BART platform. An argument based on how the service interruption may have limited free assembly seems more compelling than one based on stifling free speech, but even freedom of assembly is similarly not absolute.

All "slippery slope" arguments hinge on a notion of balance--what we, as a democratic society, are willing to accept or reject regarding how we live our lives. Do the actions taken by the BART police department truly give repressive regimes a pass to disable or block networked communications? I hardly think the limited geographic scope of the actions along with the rationale provided by law enforcement should evoke the same level of outrage as those of a regime which compels ISPs within its borders to choke off networked access for the entire nation-state. But...reasonable people may disagree with this, and isn't that kind of the point?

Aug. 21 2011 07:41 AM
Oscar from Santiago, Chile

This is certainly a developing trend that will require much scrutiny from both government and watch dog groups. As young people seem to becoming restless world wide, social media is being used as a major factor in organizing movements, both positive and negative. While the London riots have been well documented, the student led protests in Chile are not even though this movement has the chance to bring about constitutional change. Both movements heavily utilized social media, one for evil and one for good, which makes it a head ache for law makers to decide their stance on such a divisive issue.

Aug. 20 2011 06:53 PM
Dan Fulton from Birmingham, AL

As a retired teacher, I often personally advocate for
education and share links relating to education.
Recently I have been blocked or censored by
Facebook. I have received no negative comments or feedback. In fact often I receive positive comments and feedback.
I am really bewildered and disappointed in Facebook.
See:
http://img692.imageshack.us/img692/1251/facebook27.jpg

Aug. 19 2011 07:24 PM

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