British authorities are not alone in facing the implications of crowds empowered by social media and new technology. From West Coast train stations to suburban Maryland gas stations, protesters and “flash mobs” have set off debates in the United States over how far officials can go to control communications.
British Prime Minister David Cameron ignited a storm of criticism after he called for limiting access to social media to prevent riots. In Britain this week, two men were sentenced to four years in prison for attempting to organize disorder on Facebook.
But the debate is not limited to the United Kingdom. Last week, San Francisco’s Bay Area Transit Authority turned off cell-phone service in some train stations to head off expected protests over police-involved shootings.
Civil libertarians blasted that decision, and the Federal Communications Commission launched an investigation. The American Civil Liberties Union called the move “glaringly small-minded” and said that disrupting communications is dangerous to democracy.
Countries around the world heavily control access to communications. Massive protests earlier this year prompted governments in Egypt, Libya, and other nations to shut down or restrict access to the Internet and wireless phone networks. Now, civil libertarians say, some of those issues are coming home to the United States.
BART spokesman Linton Johnson defended the blackout as legal and specifically cited the 1969 Supreme Court case Brandenburg v. Ohio, which ruled that free speech could be restricted if it is "directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action."
The advocacy group Electronic Frontier Foundation countered that cutting off access to phone service in response to a planned protest is a “shameful attack on free speech.”
“The advent of reliable service inside of stations is relatively recent,” the group noted in a blog post. “But once BART made the service available, cutting it off in order to prevent the organization of a protest constitutes a prior restraint on the free-speech rights of every person in the station, whether they’re a protester or a commuter.”
BART did not shut off cell service during protests on Monday night, and EFF spokeswoman Rebecca Jeschke said, “It's interesting to note that in the BART protests this week, cell-phone service was not cut off. I hope that's a reaction to the public outcry after the first instance.”
BART’s controversial reaction to political protests drew comparisons to authoritarian dictatorships. But the fine line between political protests and criminal activity has law-enforcement officials and lawmakers facing new challenges across the country.
Over the weekend, as many as 28 teens converged on a Germantown, Md., 7-Eleven in a matter of seconds, grabbing items off shelves and leaving without paying.
Such “flash mobs” are usually organized online and over cell phones, and despite their innocuous beginnings, police say, flash mobs are becoming increasingly violent or are used to commit crimes.
Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter recently imposed a curfew after violent mob attacks over the summer. The Cleveland City Council passed an ordinance that would have made it illegal to use social media to organize violent or disorderly flash mobs. The mayor vetoed the measure, however, citing First Amendment concerns.
Officials may be overreacting to the increasing use of social media, said Cynthia Wong, director of the Center for Democracy and Technology’s Project on Global Internet Freedom.
“There is a danger in governments overstating the role of social media in these events, rather than focusing on the underlying issues,” she said.
Police aren’t against using social media for their own purposes. Maryland officials have already identified several people from the 7-Eleven mob after they posted surveillance footage on YouTube.