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Summary:

It seems totalitarian states like Egypt aren’t the only ones struggling with the impact of social media and the desire to muzzle services like Twitter and Facebook. Britain says it’s considering a ban on social media in the wake of the riots in London.

It seems totalitarian states like Egypt and Libya aren’t the only ones struggling with the impact of social media and the desire to muzzle services like Twitter and Facebook. In the wake of the riots in London, the British government says it’s considering shutting down access to social networks — as well as Research In Motion’s BlackBerry messenger service — and is asking the companies involved to help. Prime Minister David Cameron said not only is his government considering banning individuals from social media if they are suspected of causing disorder, but it has asked Twitter and other providers to take down posts that are contributing to “unrest.”

The British PM also said he has asked the police whether they need any new powers to stop the violence, including the ability to shut down social networks or communications services if they believe these tools are being used to incite unrest. Police in Britain have reportedly already begun arresting people based on their use of social media such as Twitter and Facebook, charging them with suspicion of inciting violence and/or disorder for posting tweets, and photos. In his statement, Cameron said:

[W]e are working with the police, the intelligence services and industry to look at whether it would be right to stop people communicating via these websites and services when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality.

It’s not clear how the British government plans to identify who is “plotting” to commit violence or criminal acts using social media, however. Would posting a photo of a burning car be enough? Would retweeting someone who admitted to causing violence get a user’s account shut down, or result in questioning by the authorities? The prime minister didn’t say. Meanwhile, British Home Secretary Theresa May is reportedly meeting with Twitter, Facebook and BlackBerry to discuss their “responsibilities” during such events.

Twitter says it won’t remove posts or users

For its part, Twitter has said it has no intention of blocking any users’ accounts or removing their posts. A spokesman> who talked to The Telegraph about the issue referred to a Twitter blog post from earlier this year entitled “The Tweets Must Flow,” in which co-founder Biz Stone and Twitter’s general counsel Alex Macgillivray said: “We don’t always agree with the things people choose to tweet, but we keep the information flowing irrespective of any view we may have about the content.”

Those comments were made during the popular uprisings in Tahrir Square in Egypt, when the Egyptian government shut down access not just to social networks and mobile communications networks, but eventually to the entire Internet: an attempt to smother dissent that ultimately failed, and may have actually accelerated the revolution in that country. Britain’s prime minister and his government would no doubt argue that there is a world of difference between what they are doing and what Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak did, but free-speech advocates aren’t likely to agree.

As we’ve pointed out before, the role that Twitter and other social tools have played in the London riots is identical to the role they played in the uprisings and demonstrations in Tunisia, Egypt and other countries. In other words, they have allowed people to connect with each other and distribute information quickly and easily to tens of thousands of users of these services. That’s the power of real-time networks. Obviously, that has allowed some to spread misinformation and plan acts of violence — but it has also allowed others to correct that information, and to coordinate positive moves as well, such as planning a cleanup detail in the wake of the London riots.

As author and journalism professor Jeff Jarvis has noted in his response to the British prime minister’s comments, democratic governments have to be very careful in making moves that curtail free speech, even if they think their motivation is justified. And as others have pointed out, Britain is already on what many believe is the wrong side of the freedom of speech issue in other ways — including its support for so-called “super-injunctions” that restrict the publication of certain information about court cases in that country, and in some cases have resulted in bans on using social media.

Why not crack down on telephones too?

If social-media tools such as Twitter and Facebook hadn’t been invented yet, would Britain’s prime minister be considering a crackdown on telephone use (as author Douglas Adams once mentioned), or the publication of images on blogs or websites? Would the British police be questioning or arresting people for discussing the unrest and violence in bars or the public square? That seems unlikely (although not impossible). But the British government’s apparent willingness to consider shutting down or blocking access to Twitter and BlackBerry’s BBM falls into the same category.

Fundamentally, these tools are used for what amounts to public speech. That speech can be about violence and where a mob should go next to burn something, or it can be about how to overthrow a dictator. It can be about images of disorder and calls for looting, or it can be about how to organize a cleanup crew. It may be tempting to smother that kind of speech when a government feels it is under siege, as Britain seems to feel that it is. But doing this represents nothing less than an attack on the entire concept of freedom of speech, and that has some frightening consequences for any democracy.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Jennifer Moo and Petteri Sulonen

  1. omg no social networks how will people communicate!!! seriously wtf
    FREE SPEECH is a right…….

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    1. Well, incitement is not covered under UK free speech laws. Of course, shutting down whole social networks is violating the free speech of all of the users who are using it for other things, so still a problem.

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    2. but did you notice London riot jokes flying around Twitter? http://bit.ly/q0AFVj

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  2. It is hard from Americans, who take freedom of speech and the press for granted, to realize that those freedoms are not as absolute elsewhere. The UK has press law that states what it can and can’t do, but press freedom is understood, rather than documented. And freedom of expression, protected under EU law and mirrored in Britain carries certain restrictions as well. For example, you can stand up at Speakers Corner in Hyde Park and say pretty much anything you want, except for mention the Royal Family.
    That being said, trying to shut down social media in the UK is like trying to bail out the Titanic with an ice bucket.

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    1. Agreed — thanks for the comment, Lou.

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    2. You don’t have a clue what you’re on about; you can mention the royals at Hyde Park.

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    3. I think you’re underestimating how tough the US would be If the same thing happened here. A blackout on social media is a very mild thing to do in the face of violence and destruction of property. Our government would do the same thing. Rioters inflicting violence and destruction in the US would be lucky if they weren’t shot. Not just by the police but property owners as well.

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  3. So let me get this straight. Here we have a bunch of criminals publicly declaring their intent to commit crimes in advance, and the government wants to prevent that? How about… gee I don’t know… using that information to catch them instead!

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    1. That’s what Mubarak said…

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  4. How about the government taking some responsibility for the less than great economic situation in Britain that has played at least some part in inciting people to go this crazy? And bannig social media? What does that do except prove that Britian is a police state when it suits the interests of the government? And why not mention the royal family? Expensive, entitled, out of touch?

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    1. You think the Economic situation caused this? I see, is that why every other country that is less well off than the UK is in a constant state of rioting yes?

      Idiot.

      Plus, they are talking about banning individual access from Facebook. You wouldn’t mind if they were banning some users trying to organise a rape, or a kidnapping ffs! Get some perspective

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  5. Alfred Hermida Thursday, August 11, 2011

    Reducing societal problems to the level of technology implies that these problems can be then solved by controlling the technology.

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    1. True enough, Alf — I guess the government feels like it’s easier to go after the tech than the real problems that are causing the unrest. As I recall Egypt felt the same.

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      1. The real watershed moment for social is when riots happen here in the US and what the response of our wannabe totalitarian government is when it happens!

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  6. How many blogs are going to blow this out of proportion. They’re not talking about shutting down twitter in the UK. They’re talking about taking away access to people who are openly and knowingly planning violent acts. There’s a big difference between shutting down free speech, and stopping people planning acts that could result in the damage/injury/death of innocent people/property.

    Should the government shut down social networks? Absolutely not. Should they try to stop people planning violent acts by limiting access on an individual level? Of course they should, the well-being of those innocent people trumps making it easy for people to plan illegal and violent activity.

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    1. Thanks, Quentin — so how would the government determine whose Twitter accounts or Facebook accounts should be blocked? I’m not sure that’s as simple a problem as you make it out to be.

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      1. True, but its also probably not as hard as you imply. If people have to stop and think a second before posting something online – how it might be interpreted as dangerously inciteful or illegal – its probably a good thing.

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      2. @Jim — so you can not only read people’s minds, but look into the future to pre-determine specifically what actions their thoughts will result in??

        Ever see Minority Report?

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      3. Mathew you’re absolutely right who is going to judge as its known to take words out of context and put the blame on anyone…think about that Chimp Jim!

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      4. Useful Design Friday, August 12, 2011

        And as if someone block from T&FB won’t find dozens of other ways to network with their friends online. Julian Assange mentioned in a long interview that revolutionaries in Egypt and other countries were telling each other *not* to use T&FB because the state was monitoring them. Even shutting down the whole of Twitter or FB would do nothing to stops this unrest. It’s intergenerational in the making an much more complicated than most seem to want to acknowledge.

        As for Cameron’s comment that parts of UK society are sick, when a person has a cancer do we say oh, evil cancer (well some do, Dennis Potter called his Rupert) or do we observe that the silly person was eating lots of animal protein and fats, no exercise etc etc don’t they know that causes Cancer? London societies diet is all about status and looting, this comes as no surprise to me. 70% of all London’s economic activity is trading and banking (read institutionalised looting).

        There is an underclass in London and not for the first time in history it is biting back, ungrateful as that might seem to civilised folk.

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    2. Watermellons are tasty Thursday, August 11, 2011

      Does this maybe remind you of how the Egyptian government wanted to shut down demonstrators that were going to commit violent acts against the government? I dont think you want to go down that path. The British have a tendency to go extreme when it comes to government control – ever looked at how many CCTV cameras are in London?

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    3. It really just depends on how far they take it… will that include taking away the accounts of groups that are in direct, though non violent, opposition to government policy? For example in Australia, as i am sure in Britain, there are scores of groups that practice non violent social disobedience to fight unjust policy and government practices. Once laws are passed that allow governments to suspend and remove social media accounts of those who violently oppose governments, whose to say they won’t then move onto groups that just oppose them? With a bit of media spin it would be very easy for governments to say that “we suspect” these groups are planning violence so we have also shut down their social media accounts.

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      1. How far they take it should be nowhere if they are going to cherry-pick the situations. How hypocritical to cry foul on Egypt and others for similar actions then say “oh, but we will act or implement it correctly”. If we acted like this for all the rhetoric here in the US there’d be lots of people, politicians, and websites in trouble. I also find the argument highly ironic in that they are saying words equal or result in actual violence. Seems like they tell victims of bullying or domestic violence that words and threats are just that and they can’t really help you much unless something actually happens….which in some cases is too late.

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  7. Wait, so they’re thinking of getting rid of all social media? These riots are terrible and have hurt normal people, and now they’re going to affect everybody in the UK. I’m not saying the riots and withdrawal of Facebook are comparable, but still it means the rioters have done what they want, disrupt as many people as possible.

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    1. Just had a look at a few sources and it seems like it’s just for rioters. Headline is a bit misleading though.

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      1. I think the hard part is defining “rioter.”

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  8. they’re fighting fire with fire, how productive

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  9. Stupid knee jerk reaction from a bunch of fools. They did not complain about the use of social media to organise the clean up. Social media did not managed to stop the thieving politicians so it must be fairly benign…

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    1. If you can’t judge the difference between organizing a cleanup and organizing a looting spree, you have serious ethical issues. Perhaps, you should have that looked into.

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  10. What happened to “Move and I will shoot!”.

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