Friday, September 2, 2011

Mobile Devices A Right?

Is communicating via mobile devices a right or a privilege? This issue came upm last month in the San Francisco area when BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) cut off power to four cellular towers for a three hour period. A protest against police brutality was planned on BART train platforms. (In July a BART police officer shot and killed a transient after he allegedly lunged at an officer with a knife. In 2009 a white BART police officer was found guilt of involuntary manslaughter after killing an unarmed black commuter.) BART cut off the cellular towers in an effort to block protestors from using mobile devices to coordinate the demonstration. The protest went ahead anyway.

Naturally there was an outcry about this from various people, including the American Civil Liberties Union, to the interruption of mobile communication. They called it the wrong response to political protests.

BART in response said they were trying to protect their customers from protestors intent on causing chaos. "It is illegal to be protesting on the platform," a BART spokesperson said.

BART's actions are part of a growing trend to block or interrupt mobile devices users to stop protests. Both Britain and Egypt have used it. All used this tactic in the name of protecting public safety.

One person, on a list I'm on, commented, "If BART had failed to spend the money to wire the tunnel, would they be infringing on free speech?" Another said that this is a "value-added" service so it's okay to block it. They also compared it with airlines blocking mobile device use once an airplane takes off.

Others counter by saying that if the towers were not owned by BART they were interfering with a common carrier. Even if the towers were owned by BART then it was blocking public access to a public resource paid for by taxpayers.

So who is right? At first glance the argument for public safety makes sense. However, in Egypt this argument was used as a tool of repression. Governments, their agencies and businesses have been known to hide behind public safety in the name of preventing protests. There's also the issue that BART by shutting down the towers not only blocked protestors from communicating, but also blocked the majority of users who use mobile devices for business and personal use.

How do you handle the two competing interests? When the police want to search a house, tap a phone or examine e-mail, they get a warrant. Perhaps the best way to handle restricting mobile device use for public safety is to get a court order permitting it.

To swtich gears, I want to publicly thank and praise CTV news anchor Lloyd Robertson for his many years of service. I've long been a viewer of CTV news because of Mr. Robertson. I will miss his delivery, which always seemd to strike a right balance. I'm glad he is sticking around in journalism with W5 and other projects and I hope, for his sake, that he dies doing what he so clearly loves to do, but, preferably, not for many years yet. Best wishes to Lisa LaFlamme as she takes over the anchor and becomes a new broadcasting legend.

Finally a tip of the hat to Ken Shaw, also of CTV, for sharing his story of being treated for prostate cancer. It may be just the spur some men need to get tested and thus spare their lives for a few more years. And yes I've had a regular PSA test.

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