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Summary:

A Wall Street Journal columnist says that blocking access to social media during emergencies isn’t a big deal, and that “techno-utopians” are over-reacting. But are they? Or are these kinds of moves a step on a slippery slope that leads to Chinese-style control over information networks?

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In the aftermath of the London riots, Britain’s prime minister has said the government is considering blocking people from using social media such as Twitter and Facebook, and a British MP has compared this kind of shutdown to closing a road or shutting down train service during an emergency. Today in the Wall Street Journal, a columnist makes effectively the same argument, saying a ban on social media does not violate the principle of freedom of speech, and “techno-utopians” are getting worried about nothing. But are they? Or are these kinds of moves a step on a slippery slope that leads to Chinese-style control over information networks?

A reasonable compromise?

In his WSJ column, Gordon Crovitz says that British prime minister David Cameron and his allies were “widely ridiculed” for suggesting they might shut down access to social media, but argues that such restrictions are justified, and ”permitting peaceful protests while stopping violence seems like a reasonable compromise.” The WSJ columnist notes that the Bay Area Rapid Transit authorities shut off cell service on the system’s platforms because of a threatened protest (which my colleague Erica wrote about last week), and says this was a success because “the world did not end.” Crovitz adds:

[A]ll uses of technology are not equally virtuous. Enthusiasm for technology should not lead to a moral and political relativism that confuses crime with free speech and the British police with authoritarian governments.

Of course, Crovitz doesn’t say how a social-media or cellphone shutdown (or both) would allow the British government — or anyone else, for that matter — to “permit peaceful protests while stopping violence.” Presumably, it would allow people to protest so long as they didn’t want to communicate with each other via the Internet or their cellphones about those peaceful protests. But that’s part of the problem with such an approach: It prevents everyone from using these tools, regardless of their intent.

In other words, the BART blockade prevented people from using their phones for peaceful or even emergency purposes as well as nefarious purposes — all because the agency was afraid of a protest that never actually occurred. Is that a fair trade? What if someone at those stations had been trying to call the hospital or the police?

China and Iran are watching us

Foreign-policy writer Evgeny Morozov has also written a piece in the Wall Street Journal that makes reference to the London riots and the desire of the authorities to shut down or restrict access to communication networks and social-media tools. But in his column, entitled “Repressing the Internet, Western-Style,” Morozov warns that advocates of such behavior should be aware that repressive governments in countries such as China and Iran are watching what Western democracies do, and that every infringement of liberties will be taken as a vindication of their own repressive behavior.

Britain’s prime minister isn’t the only one considering a social-media shutdown. In a series of comments posted to Twitter in the wake of the London riots, MP Louise Mensch said that she sees the shutdown of all social-media and other communication networks as no different from the police closing a road during an emergency. “If in a major national emergency police think Twitter and FB should take an hour off? So be it,” she wrote. “I don’t have a problem with a brief temporary shutdown of social media just as I don’t have a problem with a brief road or rail closure.” She went on to say:

If short, necessary and only used in an emergency, so what. We’d all survive if Twitter shut down for a short while during major riots… Social media isn’t any more important than a train station, a road or a bus service… If riot info and fear is spreading by Facebook & Twitter, shut them off for an hour or two, then restore. World won’t implode.

This kind of argument that “the world didn’t end” or “the world won’t implode” is part of the problem: It encourages us to see such behavior as fine so long as there isn’t a massive negative outcome. But despite Crovitz’s blasé response to the idea, every subsequent shutdown or restriction chips away at important principles like freedom of speech. Do governments have the right to restrict those kinds of things in certain emergency situations? Sure they do. But those situations should be chosen very carefully, and we should force the authorities who do so to justify that choice.

Speech needs to be protected in all its forms

Aren’t these kinds of restrictions just like closing a road, as Louise Mensch argues? No. Public speech, of the kind that social-media tools like Twitter and Facebook allow — not to mention cellphone or other networks — isn’t like driving to the store for a carton of milk, where a mild inconvenience is not a big deal. Advocates of a shutdown like to claim that no one has a right to use Twitter, or that such tools are inconsequential and frivolous, and so a ban doesn’t matter. But restricting speech is wrong, no matter what tool the speaker is using to distribute it, or how silly we think the service is.

In his column, Crovitz says that “the kind of thuggish behavior on display in Britain… is often just below the surface of civilized societies.” He’s right. But then, so is the urge of governments and other authorities to smother or restrict speech — purely for peace-keeping purposes, of course, and in the interests of public safety. He and Louise Mensch may be convinced that they know where to draw the line, but history has shown us it’s all too easy to blur that line, and difficult to stop that process once it begins.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Garry Knight and Jennie Moo

  1. I think it’s interesting to note that Crovitz is not just a columnist, he’s the Journal’s former publisher http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/L._Gordon_Crovitz

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    1. Good point, Taylor — that is true. And as such, his laissez-faire attitude towards government restrictions on tools of speech seems even more disturbing.

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  2. It’s censorship and a violation of the right to freedom of speech. I don’t use or particularly like twitter or Facebook, but would be furious if these services were blocked.

    Before the web, giant businesses run by powerful individuals controlled the unidirectional flow of information and opinion; TV, radio, and newspapers were broadcast only. The web gave people a feedback path and the ability to have their voices heard, and FB and twitter provide amplification for those voices. Any attempt to muffle those voices would just be the next step in the destruction of the constitution, which began with the obscenely named Patriot act.

    While I would never underestimate the ability of politicians to move the U.S. further backwards, I can’t see this happening in the U.S. Too many people on both sides of the political spectrum value these services, and would be against blocking them. However, writing stories about the possibility is a great way to attract page views and distract from the real problems that need to be solved. And it just distracted me from what I was supposed to be doing for the last 10 minutes.

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    1. Sorry for distracting you, Ken — but thanks for your comment anyway, which makes a good point.

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    2. Yes, good point

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  3. I think we have to consider public safety and intent when exercising this power. When you have a group of proven, violent “protesters” in a dangerous location (high-speed trains whizzing past and high-power third rails with no barriers) the greater good means keeping people from serious injury and death. There are plenty of examples of cities requiring protesters to remain in certain areas and requirements that they not block access to services for non-participants. The freedom of speech was not impaired. They were still free to be on the platform and chant and pass out material. But no one is free to infringe on the rights of others or to damage private property in the name of a cause.

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    1. Thanks for the comment, Lou — but restricting people’s access to a specific area and restricting their access to communication tools or implements of free speech are two completely different things.

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  4. Do columnists or reporters have the right to have their words published in newspapers or magazines? No. The newspapers and magazines grant that ability to the people they employ. But, newspapers and magazines have the right to publish. As such, there is no right to use Twitter and Facebook. But, Twitter and Facebook have the right to be used. They are both publishing platforms just like any newspaper or magazine. So government should not have the power to summarily shut them down or restrict access.

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    1. Thanks, Kevin — I would argue that Twitter in particular is a little like publishing and a little like some other forms of communication, such as the telephone. But your point is well taken. Thanks for the comment.

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  5. Jillian C. York Monday, August 15, 2011

    Great piece Mathew!

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  6. Censorship by government is wrong and cannot be tolerated by those who live in a free society. It’s all well and good to say “oh it’s okay as long as it prevents dangerous or harmful speech” but the trouble is WHO gets to decide what is “dangerous”, “harmful”? The U.S. Constitution protects freedom of expression. Period. Look for Chairman Maobama to absolutely try to restrict access to the Internet though. He’s all for freedom of expression — as long as you’re expressing views he agrees with.

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  7. British authorities have made mistakes. British police forces failed to protect London against rioters. British government failed in their communication strategy to prevent riots. And now, for all that, they want Twitter and Facebook to pay. Techno-utopians? No, just free media citizens

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  8. Wow, you guys are awesome. Hasn’t it occurred to anyone that maybe you can both protect the community while not blocking free speech? It seems to me that a simple solution that wouldn’t trample the rights of everyone by a full block of a service AND squelch unprotected speech (those that encourage riots) would be to simply suspend those tweets and posts that are unprotected. I can’t believe these morons in charge don’t understand the technology enough to realize that you CAN actually disable individual accounts or suspend certain messages selectively. But then again it’s much easier for those lazy SOBs to flip one switch.

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  9. It’s one thing if Twitter or Facebook decides to curtail “speech”, since it’s their system. It’s quite another when government gets involved. However, there is no “right” to use these services, irrespective of “free speech” considerations.

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  10. Why are you ok with governments suppressing your freedom of movement? You trivialise it as merely inconveniencing your trips to buy milk, well – speech is just tweeting about it.

    I actually support government’s moves in this area, I think they’re can be nuanced ways of doing this without which could have quelled the disorder.

    During rioting, the police set up roadblocks, the citizens must give up, temporarily, their freedom of movement – a cherished human right. Do you dispute whether they should do it? And yes, sometimes there is collateral damage, particularly when it is abused to kettle legitimate protest. But on the whole, I think roadblocks are bloody useful.

    So why not kill for example, 3g networks in areas of disruption, limited by time and geography. This would disable broadcast networks for those on the streets, while those at home can still use their broadband to stay informed. It wouldn’t be perfect, but it’s not something that should just be dismissed.

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