First it was unrest in the Middle East, then riots in the UK, now it’s reaching that bastion of free speech and human rights, the USA. I am referring here to the relatively new concept of shutting down telecommunications service at the whim of government on the slightest hint of political or social unrest.
It probably started in the second Philippines EDSA People’s Power ‘revolution’ in 2001, when millions turned up rather suddenly to demonstrate against the then government. The nature of the protests and the speed at which they gathered momentum was later tracked down to an almost geometric progression of SMS traffic that sent out messages to the masses at the speed of light.
Move the clock forward ten years and the spread of mobile phones and social networking to the masses has made wireless communications the most effective weapon for organizing any form of demonstration or revolution and governments appear to be running scared. Recent unrest in Egypt and other Arab nations led to the government forcing closure of mobile networks in an attempt to quell uprisings.
The British government put the idea of curbing social media services on the table in response to several nights of widespread looting and violence in London and other English cities. Police claim that young criminals used Twitter and Blackberry instant messages to coordinate looting sprees in riots.
Prime Minister David Cameron said that the government, security agencies and the communications industry were looking at whether there should be limits on the use of social media sites like Twitter and Facebook or services like BlackBerry Messenger to spread disorder. Although falling short of shutting down networks, the suggestions were still met with outrage with some critics comparing Cameron to the despots ousted during the Middle East uprisings.
It seems a trend is developing because mobile phones in the Indian side of the Kashmir Valley were blocked last week following orders from the Security Services who feared possible violence on Indian Independence Day. It was alleged that mobile phones are used to trigger detonations in explosive devices, and that the Independence Day could be a spur for more such attacks. That may well be the case, but the vast majority of mobile phone use is for non-criminal purposes. Cutting off all service for fear of abuse by a small potential security threat seems extreme in the least.
Getting back to USA link, it has emerged that San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) officials decided to cut off underground cellphone service for a few hours at several stations last week in an effort to tactically thwart a planned protest over the recent fatal shooting of a 45-year-old man by transit police.
The move had civil rights and legal experts questioning the agency's move, and drew backlash from one transit board member who was taken aback by the decision.
Maybe the whole telecom industry should be taken aback. Firstly, it provides a service, under heavily regulated conditions, and under most licenses is penalized if it fails to provide continuous service. Most telecom operators are private enterprises, not owned or operated by governments, yet governments still think that because of national security, they can be manipulated or controlled at their whim.
What they fail to take into account is the damage caused to these businesses when they are shut down. Firstly, no income is generated at these times and no compensation appears to be being offered. Secondly customers become very aggrieved and may take out their frustrations on the operators not knowing the reasons for a shutdown. Thirdly, closing down networks puts many businesses and people in jeopardy, often life threatening, in case of medical emergencies.
US website Breitbart went so far as to question whether the BART activity was illegal and an Orwellian violation of free speech rights. That is one view, but for the telecoms industry as whole, the concerns should be great. Any attempt to control the operation of their networks is a direct attack on their ability to provide an essential service, meet their regulatory requirements and their ability to generate revenue.
The last being the most crucial because if the fail to do this they may face a revolution if their own – from disgruntled stakeholders!