Is there anything wrong in shutting down mobile networks at specified times and places?

Posted on July 19, 2015  /  1 Comments

I praised the TRCSL approach to shutting down mobile networks at specified times within the wildlife sanctuary of Yala. Possibly because of my previous writing critical of the shutting down of mobile networks, Nalaka Goonawardene has challenged my position on Twitter, saying it creates a bad precedent. This has set off a whole lot of Tweets with people asking whether it is justifiable to shut down networks during peak traffic times to avoid accidents and so on.

First, I have to ask Nalaka and others to actually read the post. The post praised the TRCSL approach, not the action of shutting down the networks. The action was one of experimentation with a decision to be taken on the basis of evidence. I stand by that.

Having got that out of the way, let us deal with the substantive question of whether mobile networks can be shut down at any time for any reason. The US FCC initiated a proceeding to define the circumstances under which networks could be shut down. I blogged about it but did not follow up to see the outcome. Perhaps this could be a useful thing for the critics to do. Not only the FCC but other countries that periodically shut down mobile networks including the self-proclaimed guardian of democratic values, the UK.

The above suggests that like any right, the right to have working mobile signal is not absolute. Each society has to work out an acceptable procedure for determining what the exceptions are.

Let’s begin with an easy one. A concert held on private property. Is it acceptable to jam mobile signals within a concert hall? The technology exists. This Israeli technology has been used in many concert venues and churches and also in the Indian Parliament.

Is it okay to require concert goers to enter the concert premises without their phones, as is enabled by Yondr? Last evening, my enjoyment of a dance performance at the Lionel Wendt was marred by the use of smartphones to record the entire show (at least one case) and many people taking flash photographs using their phones. I looked up the technological solutions to this rude behavior because the normal civilized requests did not seem to work with these people.

Clearing, there are negative externalities emanating from use of the camera and voice functionalities of smartphones in concert halls and places where people need to concentrate. But it will also prevent a concert-goer from being contacted by a baby sitter in an emergency (or, as our overwrought critics suggest, the next tsunami).

Who should decide? In the case of private events held in private spaces or public spaces that have been leased for private purposes, the answer seems to be clear: the event organizer can make the decision. No one compelled you to go to the concert; you entered into a contract when you bought the ticket that included a clause that said you cannot take photographs, do video recordings or engage in voice calls.

So now we take the more complicated case: public space. There, the default has to be for the network to be available. My rights in public space are always greater than my rights in private space. What the FCC and others are trying to do is to define what the exceptions are. I understand we don’t trust our governments (but some of us trust the US and UK governments). In the case of any exceptions, it is good to have a public process to define the exceptions and to have accountability and review attached to the implementation of the exception.

Finally, we come back to Yala. Is it a public space, or a private space? Given you bought a ticket to enter that imposed all sorts of conditions such as a prohibition on alighting from the vehicle, it seems to have many of the qualities of a private space though it is owned and operated by a government department. It is possible to add another condition prohibiting the use of mobile phones for communication purposes.

But the problem is enforcement. Drivers and guides get tips depending on how many exotic animals can be shown. So they use the technology to find the leopards and create traffic jams and most un-wild and unpleasant conditions within the parks. How can this be policed by prohibiting visitors from communicating. Even if they were required to leave their phones outside the park (as one has to do when entering the American Center in Colombo), that would not prevent the guides and drivers coordinating the crowding of wild life. So an effective public policy solution would have to prevent these people from using phones.

Any way, I go back to praising the approach of the TRCSL. Run the experiment. Consider the view points, possibly through a public consultation. Build in safeguards, like enabling calls from where people get off the vehicles for toilet breaks (especially the Palatupana location where many tourists died in 2004).

We have to rebuild trust in government. Let’s start small, with issues like this.

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