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Politics & Current Affairs

When Can the Government Shut Down Wireless Networks?

The FCC is trying to balance the threat of terrorism against the benefits of having wireless networks in an emergency, e.g. to aid first responders. And what about free speech rights?

What’s the Latest Development?

The Federal Communications Commission has opened an investigation which seeks to determine when a public agency, if ever, can shutdown wireless networks. The investigation is the result of a 2011 event in which the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police ordered that wireless service be shutdown to confound a protest against the killings of Oscar Grant and Charles Hill by the BART police a few days earlier. In addition to determining if the BART police should be reprimanded, the FCC wants to find a balance between legitimate instances in which wireless service should be shut down and the protection of free speech. 

What’s the Big Idea?

Concerns over infrastructure being particularly vulnerable to terrorism have motivated public transport agencies including BART to recommend they be given the authority to shutdown wireless networks if they have knowledge of an imminent crime which will be carried out with the help of wireless networks (such as bombs which can be remotely detonated via cell phone signals). Such claims must be balanced against the benefits of having working wireless networks during an emergency, when they are often the primary communication tool for first responders. Free speech advocates have demanded the strongest justifications for network shutdowns. 

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