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A Time to Kill (Switch)

September 26, 2011

At exactly 5:20 p.m. EST on 27 January, 2011, Egypt’s internet traffic flowing across 80 internet providers crawled to a halt. With countries like Burma disrupting internet connectivity in 2007 and Iran announcing plans for an internal ‘halal’ internet, Egypt’s mid-uprising shutdown was a thundering silence heard around the world and inspired this headline: ‘Egypt Shut Down Its Net With a Series of Phone Calls.’

So how did Egypt shut down the net? Did someone in the government hit a giant stop button?

Not quite.

‘I do like the image of a big red switch sitting on a desk somewhere, but Egypt has a significant infrastructure,’ Labovitz said.

But it’s still small enough that just a few phone calls probably sufficed. [my emphasis]

In sheer chutzpah and scale, Egypt’s dial-tone interruption did almost as much to seal Hosni Mubarak’s fate as the spectacular violence his regime unleashed on horse and camelback a few days later. For casual observers the incident was shocking, but perhaps slightly too ‘over there.’

That all changed on the evening of Thursday, August 2011, when the Bay Area Rapid Transit blocked mobile phone service in downtown San Francisco stations in anticipation of a protest about the (filmed) police murder of Charles Hill, and as part of what it elusively called ‘a larger strategy.’ Eve Batey:

On July 11, protesters disrupted rush-hour commutes in response to the killing of Charles Hill by BART police a week earlier. BART police arrested a number of protesters that night and temporarily closed San Francisco’s Civic Center BART station, among others.

This afternoon, BART police were standing, with about a dozen officers in riot gear and a dozen safety officers in green vests present on the train platform at Civic Center Station, where protesters were expected to gather around 4:30 p.m.

How did BART (unethically, undemocratically, and very, very likely illegally) shut down telecommunications services? In Freedom of Information Act requests filed by Jacob Appelbaum and Christopher Soghoian, it now appears that the decision was relayed to BART’s Telco Partner with one email. Meet ‘Steve‘:

The BART Police require the M-Line wireless from the Trans Bay Tube Portal to the Balboa Park Station, to be shut down today between 4pm & 8.
Steve , please help to notify all carriers.

Along with many others on Twitter I announced my decision to formally file a complaint about the shutdown with the Federal Communications Commission, and fired this off on the night of the BART disruption:

As a former resident of California and passenger of the BART system for four years, I was appalled to learn that the transit provider disabled mobile phone services to prevent a planned protest. Not only was their action democratic, it was dangerous and illegal. Passenger safety, let alone democratic law, was apparently not a concern. I join thousands of others in asking you to investigate BART to the fullest extent of the law.

Astonishingly, the FCC wrote back a week later that ‘the matter you have outlined in your correspondence does not come under the jurisdiction of the FCC.‘ With that abrupt line, I was referred to the Office of the Attorney General of the California Department of Justice.

The FCC’s response left me (and many who replied to my surprise) bereft of any answers, though I continued to question their letter on Twitter.

Exactly one month later, I received this letter, essentially a ‘my bad’ on the part of the FCC.

Our earlier letter erroneously stated that the FCC lacks jurisdiction to investigate this matter; in fact, the FCC does have such jurisdiction. Indeed, FCC staff is looking into the facts of what happened and whether BART’s actions were consistent with the federal Communications Act. In reviewing this situation, the FCC is mindful of both the critical public safety role of local agencies, and the importance of uninterrupted public access to wireless communications for safety, free expression, and other purposes. [my emphasis]

In Becoming Fugitive: Carceral Space and Rancierean Politics I wrote about the ominous pitfalls of security regimes that seek to shape and surveil space for panoptic, social, and political control—in the case of Oscar Grant, outright death. If BART is allowed a free pass after hitting the inimical ‘kill switch’ at its own choosing in order to quell demonstrations against police brutality and other forms of state violence, the logic of American dataveillance is no different from Mubarak-era Egypt or any other enemy of virtual access and true democratic expression.

(Image: ‘Call in Sick’ by D*Face, London, 2008.)

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Daniel F. Rivera Gómez permalink
    September 26, 2011 13:41

    I really cannot say much about it but I think is outrageous that policy can shut down cell phones like that. Well done, I hope your voice are heard.

  2. October 3, 2011 01:52

    To the author of this blog, @southsouth [a.k.a. M. Monalisa Gharavi], and to other interested persons,

    First, to @southsouth, I want to thank you for writing this fine piece and for managing to extract a response from the FCC on your complaint. To all reading this, you may be interested to know that recently I sent out this tweet, which has been (so far) individually retweeted to about 7957 people, apart from those in my list that received it:

    @exiledsurfer @OpBART See & email to ask 4 decision on petitions @ #OpBART

    My hope is that after people write and contact Sharon Bowers at the FCC, pending public interest petitions available for download at will be finally given docket number(s) by the FCC, posted for public review, and decision(s) (declaratory judgment(s)) will be made on the petitions related to #BART. It is absolutely vital that this happen in order that our ability to communicate and exercise free speech rights remain intact. If you plan on writing an e-mail, please write a “Dear FCC” addressed to Sharon Bowers at the e-mail above and make sure and include the links to the public interest petitions that are cited in the blog shown above with your request for action.

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