Social media, First Amendment and data security issues are interwoven in recent accounts of current events that raise fascinating concerns and questions.
In San Francisco, attempts were made to foil protesters planning to disrupt public transportation services when the Bay Area Rapid Transit authority temporarily interrupted cell service at several subway platforms. This unleashed a barrage of reaction and debate on both sides of the issue. Perhaps the most notable and certainly the most vicious group to take exception to BART’s action was the hacker group Anonymous, which attacked myBart.org, defacing the site and releasing personal information for 2,400 BART riders, and even organizing a subsequent demonstration.
It’s not only the vigilante group that is acting in the wake of BART’s decision to thwart protesters by disrupting cell service, however; the Federal Communications Council has also launched an investigation into the matter.
Was BART’s temporary shutdown reasonable given the public safety concerns of the transit authority, which designates free speech areas for public protests safely outside of its train and subway platforms? Were the free speech rights of the protesters violated? What about other riders who may have tried to reach a child, parent or even emergency services during the period cell service was disrupted? Was it worth the cost to attempt to prevent potentially dangerous protests?
While all these issues are sorted out, BART’s professional reputation has certainly been damaged. Policy-makers are questioning the organization’s decision-making and lack of leadership, some even comparing BART to former Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak, who shut down cell service in Tahrir Square in response to peaceful protests earlier this year.
Days before the San Francisco incident, social media was cast first as the villain and then as the hero across the pond in London. First, rioters utilized BlackBerry Messenger to organize days of extremely destructive and disturbing lawless acts. In the wake of the riots, however, volunteers have been recruited and massive cleanup efforts have been mobilized via Twitter and Facebook, redeeming social media’s role in this unfortunate episode in the eyes of Londoners and other observers.
Back in California, Anonymous is again making threats, this time in Fullerton where the vigilante organization seeks retaliation for the alleged beating death of a homeless schizophrenic man by Fullerton police. The Anonymous YouTube video is both fascinating and disturbing with its masked spokesperson, computer-modulated voice and demands.
So where will this tale end? Its conclusion is yet to be written. The debates surrounding the use of social media platforms to incite action, the use of cyber-attacks to exact vigilante justice and the threats to First Amendment rights and data security are too important, however, for any of us to ignore. Where do you stand on these issues? Which of these threats do you find most disturbing?