The prime minister’s suggestion that social networks should be blocked during riots was just puff, says Sophie Curtis
The government is gearing up to meet tech giants Twitter, Facebook and Research in Motion on 25 August, to discuss the role social media played in the riots earlier this month and how similar action can be avoided in the future.
The meeting is expected to determine how much responsibility should fall on the social networks – which were used to organise riots and coordinate action – for fuelling rioting and other criminal behaviour. RIM’s BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) service has been subject to special scrutiny, given that it facilitates private communications between users.
Speaking at the House of Commons on 11 August, prime minister David Cameron raised a few eyebrows when he seemed to suggest that access to social networks should be blocked at times of civil unrest.
“Everyone watching these horrific actions will be stuck by how they were organised via social media,” said Cameron. “Free flow of information can be used for good. But it can also be used for ill. And when people are using social media for violence we need to stop them.
“So we 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.”
Stifling free speech
While I can understand the need for government to take precautions against future rioting, the prime minister cannot be serious about blocking access to social networks. While, as Conservative MP Louise Mensch pointed out, the world will not implode if Facebook and Twitter were shut off for an hour or two, it would undoubtedly fire rioters up even more and lead to accusations of censorship.
That is a headache David Cameron does not need – particularly at a time when oppressive regimes in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya have been accused of stifling civilians’ right to free speech during political uprisings in those countries. The UK is still fundamentally a democratic society, and the government will be keen to avoid any comparison with foreign political censorship.
That is assuming of course, that it is even possible to stop people organising riots online. As has been proved time and again in the case of illegal file-sharing, closing down one site does not stop users moving somewhere else. The World Wide Web is a big place, and there are countless other forums and social networks that troublemakers can use to plan their chaos.
Furthermore, social networks have proved to be as important in helping the country recover from the riots as they were in organising them. One Twitter campaigner successfully drove a spontaneous clean-up of London on 9 August using the hashtag #riotcleanup, after the capital was struck by looters overnight.
Social networks also proved to be an invaluable tool for police during the riots. It was through their monitoring of Twitter and Facebook that the Metropolitan police was able to discover that rioters were discussing Westfield shopping centres, Oxford Street and the Olympic site as possible targets, and therefore prevent any such attacks taking place. The sites have also since been used to track down and arrest those who incited violence.
Hindrance or help?
At a time when the government is just beginning to get a grip on the power of the Internet to interact with citizens and offer online public services, it would be madness to start tampering with how it is controlled. Projects such as Alphagov and the ‘Networked Nation‘ programme rely on people’s confidence in the openness and neutrality of the web, and would be set back years by any suggestion of censorship.
In reality, I do not think that Cameron really has any intention of introducing legislation to allow for blocking of social networks – he knows he would be shooting himself in the foot. It is more likely that he was simply trying to cover all bases and appease the critics.
What the meeting between government and the social media bigwigs will achieve is difficult to predict, although it certainly makes the government look proactive. Perhaps they may agree new terms for what personal data can be shared between social networking companies and the police – another contentious issue that raises pressing questions about online privacy.
However, I think it most likely that nothing will change as a result this meeting. They will discuss possible strategies to prevent further rioting but ultimately they will agree that, when it comes to keeping the peace, social networks are more of a help than a hindrance.