The Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) agency has just implemented a policy stating it can only shut down cell phone service in its system under "extraordinary circumstances." This comes in response to an August 11 cell service shutdown because of concerns for passenger safety on crowded trains and platforms during a protest, but critics of the move believe it was designed to disrupt the protest rather than passengers safe. To mollify free speech concerns, BART's new policy allows shutdowns only when there's "strong evidence of imminent unlawful activity" that's a threat to passengers and when that shutdown would "substantially reduce the likelihood of such unlawful activity." The agency is including several examples of such sitautions, including the potential for a cell phone-activated explosive or a hostage situation.

Due to the potential first amendment issues, the FCC's taking a close look at BART's August shutdown and the subsequent policy announcement. While the FCC said BART's new policy is an "important step in responding to legitimate concerns," the agency also believes that "the legal and policy issues raised by the type of wireless service interruption at issue here are significant and complex." To that end, the FCC will be publicly reviewing the conflict of first amendment rights with the public's protection. While BART's examples of potential shutdown situations seem reasonable, its policy is broadly worded — we'll see if the FCC wants it to be tightened up to avoid misuse in the future or if any other transit systems start rolling out similar policies.