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US subway operator does a Mubarak, cuts power to underground cell sites

Right groups have condemned a decision by a San Francisco regional subway authority to suspend mobile phone services last week before a planned civil demonstration, with some members comparing the move to the actions of dictatorial Middle Eastern regimes.

The Bay Area Rapid Transit Authority (BART) stopped the flow of data at some of the downtown stations during the homebound commute on Thursday evening without warning. BART announced it successfully thwarted a protest.

The demonstration was organized right after the second fatal shooting of a suspect by BART police in recent years. BART security reasoned out that they were just concerned for the safety of the commuters as protests on crowded platforms could have been dangerous.

Agency spokesman Jim Allison said it wasn’t an attempt to suppress information, train riders also need to have safe passage.

San Francisco-based technology activists who have assisted in getting anticensorship and anti-monitoring tools in to the hands of protesters in Egypt, China and elsewhere, were enraged at what they said was an unprecedented US shutdown that broke constitutional protections for free speech and assembly.

Electronic Frontier Foundation posted on its website: “Cutting off mobile phone service in response to a planned protest is a shameful attack on free speech.” The statement even said BART officials are acting similar to the former president of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak, who ordered the shutdown of mobile phone service in Tahrir Square in response to peaceful, democratic protests last January.

Some activists posted via Twitter that they had filed complaints to the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and Allison said he had told a FCC press official about what happened.

The hacking group Anonymous called on Saturday for a real-world protest - they asked supporters to bombard BART fax machines with black transmissions that consume a lot of ink.

The situation exacerbated when some BART officials explained on Friday that they had asked the four wireless carriers serving the underground line to suspend cell phone transmission. Then some said that BART acted alone by cutting off power to the cell sites that passed the signals along the tunnels.

BART, in a press briefing, also explained that the service disruption lasted longer and affected more stations than initially disclosed. Allison said on Sunday that it ran from 4pm to 7:35pm at all eight San Francisco subway stations.