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Bay Area transit board agrees to make policy on cell-phone blackouts

By Dan Simon and Michael Martinez, CNN
Bay Area Rapid Transit police officers stand guard during a protest at a San Francisco station.
Bay Area Rapid Transit police officers stand guard during a protest at a San Francisco station.
  • NEW: BART board will have FCC and others vet proposed policy
  • NEW: BART staff's decision to cut off commuters' cell phones is a "PR nightmare," director says
  • BART suspended cell service in spots August 11 to thwart demonstrators
  • The move elicited harsh criticism from civil liberty advocates and others

Oakland, California (CNN) -- San Francisco's transit system board agreed Wednesday to put together a formal policy on when cell-phone service can be cut off to commuters, in response to widespread complaints and recent protests.

The Bay Area Rapid Transit's board of directors will also have the proposed policy reviewed by the Federal Communications Commission and California Public Utilities Commission.

The board's decision came during a three-hour special meeting Wednesday to discuss the agency's decision earlier this month to cut off cell-phone signals at certain underground stations to ward off protests. That decision ignited a debate about free speech and public safety.

The board agreed that the new policy would define the kinds of public safety threats warranting a cutoff of commuters' cell signals.

Developing the new policy could take up to four weeks. The proposed policy would also be presented to free-speech groups for their review, board members said.

BART director Lynette Sweet acknowledged the controversy as a "PR nightmare." She was upset that the board didn't have a say in the staff decision -- which was widely criticized by free-speech advocates.

"Obvious First Amendment rights and the right to have a communication are what people are looking for," Sweet said. "We need to defend First Amendment rights to protest us and use cell-phone communication."

She found the widespread public criticism "really frustrating -- I'm held accountable for a staff decision," she said. "If we're gonna shut off cell phones, it has to be the most extraordinary circumstances that I equate to 9/11 level."

On August 11, demonstrators had planned a rally to bring attention to a number of transit police officer shootings, including the death of 45-year-old Charles Hill. Hill was shot July 3 after a confrontation with officers.

The transit agency said protests during rush hour endangered the safety of commuters and employees.

As evidence, they cited a protest on July 11 where demonstrators had used cell phones to coordinate which stations to target.

That spirited and largely peaceful rally at the city's Civic Center stop was organized by a group called "No Justice, No BART."

But at the demonstration, one person climbed atop a subway train before being pulled down. BART also said protesters blocked doors and generally delayed roughly two-thirds of trains running during the rush-hour commute that day.

As a result, when protesters planned another demonstration on August 11, the subway system said it cut off cell-phone signals at some stations.

BART said it did so to prevent protesters from using "mobile devices to coordinate their disruptive activities and communicate about the location and number of BART Police."

The August 11 protests never materialized. But the decision to cut off signals elicited criticism from civil liberty organizations, the San Francisco Chronicle's editorial page and others.

"Shutting down access to mobile phones is the wrong response to political protests, whether it's halfway around the world or right here at home," the ACLU of Northern California said.

The Federal Communications Commission said it is looking into the incident.

"Any time communications services are interrupted, we seek to assess the situation," FCC spokesman Neil Grace said last week.

"We ... will be taking steps to hear from stakeholders about the important issues those actions raised, including protecting public safety and ensuring the availability of communications networks," Grace said.

Last week, hackers attacked BART's website and posted the home addresses and other information of all 102 police officers on the train system's police force.

It wasn't clear who was to blame for the hacking incident.

But in a prior hacking incident on August 14, members of the well-known hacking group Anonymous took credit in online messages for breaking into a link off BART's website. The hackers posted information from BART's internal network, including phone numbers of hundreds of people.

Meanwhile, police alternately closed and reopened commuter train stations in downtown San Francisco Monday after demonstrators gathered to protest the recent shootings.

CNN's Dan Simon reported from Oakland, California.