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Blaming the tools: Britain proposes a social-media ban

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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 (s rimm) 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

58 Responses to “Blaming the tools: Britain proposes a social-media ban”

  1. Carl Forscht

    Set fire to say LA, Chicago and NY City and see how fast our freedom of speech in the US would be suppressed, Twitter and Facebook would only be a small part of it. I sincerely hope violence like this never happens in the US, but clearly many Americans have no idea to what lengths our government at the local, state and federal levels would go to shut down violent descent. Then of course the rioters would also have armed citizens to contend with. You can smugly sit in judgement of the British move to silence social media if you like. However, if a similar situation happened here – it would get far uglier very fast. I say this because neither our Government, nor our people play games with violence. If people want violent and deadly, we’ve got violent and deadly on tap – as we have demonstrated in our history at home and abroad. Tell me the US isn’t badass. We all know this is true. All you have to do is search the web for historic accounts of riots in the US. You’ll get a better understanding of what our government is capable of. Remember KENT STATE! Just one example.

  2. Greg Janice

    Stupid Brits! Internet, under net, overnet, they will NEVER stop free speech once a democracy. RIOT on Brits and overthrow your tyrant government. This is what shapes the world when the balance of power is the minority, the majority rules!

  3. Bruce Lenhart

    Guess who already did it? San Fran: transit police cut mobile service to stop protest Looks like the US beat you to it – not even emergency service, good thing no one needed medical aid during the time. Well thought out plan, that one.

  4. Lindsworth Horatio Deer

    All of this reminds me of the Billy Joel song “We didn’t start the fire”. Social Media certainly start the unrest as “it was always burning Since the world’s been turning”!

    Dousing the accelertant, which is what Facebook and Twitter represent (throw BB Messenger) is a Herculean task tantamount to a dictatorship a la the book 1984 . Social Media “didn’t light it”.

    this heavyhanded response by the British Govt to what is effectively millennials [ages 18 to 28] venting their frustration at a stagnant British economy set to get worse in a possible coming Second Recession courtesy of EU defaults smacks of censorship.

    Mark my words, it would be a setup for a EU wide Riots…….

  5. SaveTheStrays

    I don’t want to be offensive but you guys are showing yourselves up as knowing VERY LITTLE about the UK. Firstly, if you read the article linked at the beginning of the article above, you will read in the headline that the Prime Minister is proposing removing access to social networks only for the people who are using it to organise riots and social disruption, not for everyone.

    Secondly….actually no. I’m not going to finish posting. It’s a waste of time. You all need to READ before commenting please. Thank you.

  6. Ben Smith

    The PM didn’t say they wanted to shut-down certain social networks – he said they would investigate whether it was possible to prevent people known to be planning criminal acts from using it. This is still a bad move as it differentiates some types of comms from others, but it would be better if we focused out energies on challenging what’s actually proposed, not what poorly informed press and MP’s have interpreted it to mean.

    The rules for ‘incitement’ are already clear and have been operating for a long time. I’m not aware anyone has proposed changing them – just that they must ben applied equally to modern forms of communication too.

  7. i.p.freely

    This isn’t a debate about Freedom of Speech. It’s about limiting the use of a tool for your speech. You don’t have to provide the tools to spread your speech. But you are certainly not prevented from expressing yourselves.

    Your freedom of speech is not taken away by blocking Tweeter or Facebook or BBM. Get that through your head.

    These things are conveniences, that’s like saying you are taking my right to free speech by taking away my Blackberry or iPhone.

    What the fuck are you people on about…

    “Hey internet is down, oh well, I guess no revolution then.”

    Get off your fucking high horses you idiots.

  8. Peoples’ homes and businesses – lives they have spent years building – are being destroyed by thugs who want a free cell phone.

    How is the government’s efforts to protect ordinary people in any way close to the abuses perpetrated by the Egyptian government?

  9. Michael Powe

    There’s no absolute right to “free speech.” Ultimately, an attempt to regulate Twitter, Facebook, et al. would probably fail on technical grounds. The gov’t likely would be unable to adequately discriminate between a tweet inciting violence and one fretting over it. But just as you can’t yell fire in a crowded theatre, you can’t tweet someone to come on down to Tottenham and kick some behind or loot some electronics. If you do, and they catch you, you should get jail time. Just as you would if you were caught doing it face-to-face or over the phone. Presumably, you’ll get your day in court and chance to persuade a jury that you weren’t doing what the gov’t claims you were doing.

    • Absolutely. Free speech is about preserving reasoned and necessary dissent.

      Encouraging gangs to attack a specific person’s house or business is not reasoned dissent. It serves no other purpose than to hurt innocent people.

      I notice that the people who seem to believe that reasonable measures to prevent attacks on ordinary people are safe behind their computer keyboards. Perhaps they might feel differently if their homes were being burned in front of them.

  10. justcorbly

    Clearly, not everyone has decided if access to social media falls under the free speech umbrella. I have a lot of problems with restricting the net access of people who have not been convicted of a crime. But, I have no problem with the government deploying its own tools to find people inciting, coordinating, etc., criminality on those platforms.

    To expect government not to pay attention to social media exhortations to, and the organization of, violent criminality makes no more sense than to expect the same deliberate ignorance of people putting up signs telling people to do the same thing.

  11. Tony Jackson

    “In the wake of the riots in London, the British government says it’s considering shutting down access to social networks..”

    Just where does it say that exactly?

    • Did you read the quote from Cameron? He said the government is considering stopping people from “communicating via these websites and services.” That sounds like shutting down access to social networks to me.

      • Tony Jackson

        Your opening comment infers that access is being restricted to all.

        “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 —”

        Denying access to on-line services has been part of sentences handed out to many in the UK, long before any riots. This is nothing new. Convicted sex offenders, terror suspects and others get restriction orders. Adding a few rioters isn’t going to get anyone excited.

        But for the sake of grabbing traffic, it seems you have needed to make a completely unfounded statement, that the shut-down of complete access is being considered. Which is a million miles away from what is being discussed.

  12. Ian Kirkland

    Funny how a few months ago we were cheering on the Libyans, etc. as they used the social networks to fire their comrades imaginations. Not so good when it happens at home. But shutting it down is still wrong!

  13. brainbowmouse

    So it is ok for social networks to help with revolution in Egypt / insert name of other backwards country – but if it is helping revolution in your country then – NOooooo

    • Idiots!

      Revolution? Maybe in Egypt you plumb but here in the UK people are ramraiding supermarkets for weekly shopping you idiot! It’s like an episode of The Simpsons when someone yells “let’s tear this place apart!” and everyone does.

      Businesses have been burnt to the ground with people inside. An elderly man was dragged into a crowd and beaten! And you think thats revolution? man alive

    • Michael Powe

      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.

  14. 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.

  15. Quentin

    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.

      • 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.

      • Mike Cherry

        @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?

      • Concerned

        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!

      • Useful Design

        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.

    • Watermellons are tasty

      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?

    • 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.

      • 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.

  16. Da14charlie

    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?

    • idiots!

      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?


      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

  17. 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!

  18. loucovey

    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.