Welcome to Protests in the Social Media Age, Where Governments Openly Mull Controversial Bans on Mobile ServicesS

Today's sticky, ill-defined civil rights-related debate involves government, its people and the rights of each when there's a protest taking place in the middle of one of the most connected, social periods of human history. Let's discuss! Updated.

The real-world, this-just-happened example is this: If a government agency has credible evidence that anarchist groups are planning potentially dangerous protests on a public transit system that's already embroiled in controversy, do they have the right to disable cell service as part of a strategy to quell the masses and prevent the free flow of information? And what if that strategy actually worked?

I ask because that happened this week in San Francisco, where government officials disabled four cell locations along the BART public transportation system in response to chatter about anarchist groups organizing there to protest the fatal shooting of Charles Blair Hill by BART police on July 3. The move effectively silenced underground subway cell service from 4 to 7 p.m. on Thursday evening and the protests ultimately did not materialize as planned.

The move smacks of what's been proposed across the pond in the U.K., where Prime Minister David Cameron fanned the flames of an already deadly riot situation by proposing "new powers" for police and other authorities in terms of how they could limit or block social media from becoming an organizational tool for protestors:

...when people are using social media for violence we need to stop them. So we are working with the Police, the intelligence services and industry to look at whether it would be right to stop people communicating via these websites and services when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality. I have also asked the police if they need any other new powers.

The gray area (grey to you English blokes) is "violence." Officials will say they're blocking access only because they have credible evidence and need to protect the citizenry. The people claim their rights are being trampled and that government is getting too big. Social networking sites like Twitter say they won't block or disclose identities, but sometimes they do, but only in special circumstances. Ditto for the cell companies themselves, who actually worked directly with BART in this case to deny access for those three hours (and let's not get started on what went on these past 10 years in the "War on Terror").

It will probably get worse before everything settles or gets better, which is how these maddening debates usually work. Come to think of it, this whole mess kind of makes a guy want to protest something. In any event, intelligent, respectful commenting is encouraged. Enjoy!

Update: Early salvo already fired: Anonymous plans a "peaceful" assault on BART this Monday.

Update 2: It's already begun. Anonymous has apparently hacked BART's database and released thousands of names and numbers related to its employees. A notice provided by BART in response to the attack assured riders that the web side of things are not related to the public transit infrastructure in any way.

An anonymously posted press release detailed the Anonymous plan:

1. Begin a massive Black Fax and E-Mail Bomb action, where it would fill every inbox and fax machine at BART with thousands of copies of its message claiming the outage was unacceptable. A list of those email addresses just been posted to Pastebin, a site commonly used by hackers to share text anonymously.
2. It would remove BART's website for exactly six hours. That's twice as long as BART shut off cell phones for.
3. A "physical protest" will take place at the Civic Center Bart Station.

More updates as they arrive... [ATD, EFF Image: San Francisco Chronicle]

You can keep up with Jack Loftus, the author of this post, on Twitter and Facebook.