How the Government turned anti social media

Loz Kaye responds to David Cameron's potential idea of a social media block in 'emergencies'

Image: CC-AT-SA Flickr: worldeconomicforum

We have all been shocked by the scenes of arson, looting and violence on the streets of our country over recent days. Living as I do in central Manchester, I have been touched by it too. The night of the riots here was a night of helicopters and sirens, from my flat I saw people chased by police vans through the local retail estate.

The awful events have left everyone searching for answers as to the causes of the disturbances and what we do next. Sadly, politicians back from their holidays have skipped the how, what, why - the facts part of the debate - and rushed straight to the blame game. In a depressingly familiar pattern, technology is being made a scapegoat. This time it is social media and services such as Blackberry Messenger that are in the frame.

The Prime Minister’s statement on the riots to a recalled House of Commons was short on real substance, but it did include the following:

“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.... 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."

This is a dangerous kneejerk reaction, which is unwarranted and has real potential to harm freedom of speech in the United Kingdom.

The wording of David Cameron’s speech is very careful, to try and make it impossible to raise objections. It seeks to focus on individuals and violence. To start with, this ignores that there are already powers to deal with the intention of this statement. This area is covered for example by the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA) and the Communications Act 2003. In practice, media lawyer Steve Kuncewicz has pointed out: “We have seen [communication] bans handed out as part of ASBOs previously, as well as bans from contacting other users in harassment cases...”. 

There is of course a very high profile case of an individual being prosecuted for supposed “menace” on a social network - Paul Chambers in the infamous “Twitter Joke Trial”.  Even those who thought the prosecution was justified must recognise the facts that there was no bomb, and crucially in light of the current debate, there was no panic or riot at Robin Hood airport. The waste of police time and money on this affair appears more ridiculous than ever. But it also shows how blameless individuals can be caught up in the scramble to appear tough on crime or terrorism, by cracking down on the internet.

If the PM’s office is at least aware of the existing powers, perhaps this is just another empty exercise in keeping the Tory backbenchers happy by appearing to do something that will in fact be ditched quietly when Mr Cameron is back from his second summer holiday. After all, the impossibility of what is being proposed is self evident to people with even a casual knowledge of technology or social media. All too often I can’t help thinking that that our policy is being made by leaders that seem to believe programmes like Spooks are real life. There is no immediate Facebook death ray that will take out individual plotters from the web at a time of crisis.

If this is more than an exercise in spin, surely the coalition is seeking to go further than current law already permits.

To go further is to ask for wider blanket powers of web and telecommunications blocking. To hide it in the language of stopping plotters is disingenuous. That the proposals have been understood as calling for the ability to take action such as “turning off Twitter” is evident by the reaction.

One striking example was Louise Mensch MP’s appearance on Sky TV. That she seems to think it is possible to target individual hashtags in some meaningful way was rightly greeted with people banging their heads on their desks throughout the land. But to just dismiss her views as ill informed would be a real mistake. She is on the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee after all. She states it would be acceptable to turn twitter off for “half an hour or an hour”. We now have people we should trust to guard our democracy who think curtailing freedom of speech has the same status as “a brief road or rail closure”.

It is a mark of how far we have lurched towards authoritarianism that we even need to look at how nonsensical so much of the comment on this issue has been. If young people - and from the court reports - estate agents, teachers and parents, really think so little of their communities that they are prepared to smash and burn for a pair of shorts they will find a way with or without Blackberry Messenger. As Sam Biddle put it in Gizmodo: “window-smashing pedestrians didn't stumble upon Twitter and think, My God, we could use this to organize a bloody great riot!” 

Even if the government takes the view that freedom of speech needs to be suppressed in the name of national security, what is being proposed does not solve the problem of rioting and looting anyway. By the time enough evidence could have been amassed to warrant some kind of shut down, the damage would have been done. Incidents took place over the course of hours - not the half an hour or an hour that Mensch refers to. So surely that leaves us in a place where MPs of her view will be asking for blocks of several hours. Or days.

It is typical of this Government’s approach to set out an unfeasible course of action, then expect others to implement it - in this case “the police, the intelligence services and industry “. It turns the police into passive observers and reactors, rather active participants working in a proportionate manner with communities. It was this that restored calm to our streets - not squaddies, bullets, or water cannon - and certainly not censorship. We need to look at root causes, not blame channels of communication.

The simplistic demonisation of certain communication channels from various quarters has contributed to the pressure on the Government. The Deputy Assistant Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Steve Kavanagh blamed Twitter for fuelling the riots with “inflammatory” and “inaccurate” messages. At one point the Sun was frothing about the “twitter rioters”. All of this bears only the faintest relation to evidence. The Mail, in their utterly imitable style, even managed to link BBM to their obsession with real estate. In the quest to find “an electronic ‘master key’” to turn off “sinister” technology, they observed RIM co-chief executive Mike Lazaridis “was also unavailable for comment at his glass-walled mansion.”

Parliament has learnt nothing from “Hackgate”. In the wake of the News International scandal there was a widespread hope that the main parties had thrown off their fear of the tabloids and had gained new purpose and moral fibre. All too soon it has been business as usual, with politicians bounced into populist positions with no proper justification.

There is a wider context to these calls for communication curbs - the creeping censorship agenda that groups like the Pirate Party and ORG have been highlighting. Just a few weeks before these events, I warned that the judgement requiring BT to block Newzbin2 set the precedent for further restrictions. ORG’s Peter Bradwell said on the same case that "website blocking is pointless and dangerous.” Even with my pretty jaded view I did not think we would be proved right so soon. This has always been the core point of those of us defending digital rights. It is not about free stuff - it is about free speech.

We have seen some of the worst sides of human nature during and in the wake of these riots. Thankfully we have seen some of the best sides of Britain too. And a lot of that has been thanks to social media. The speed at which hundreds were mobilised by the #riotcleanup hashtag was impressive. Even while the police vans were racing past my flat, @RiotCleanUpManc was planning for the next day, which they couldn’t have done if they had been restricted.

As it happened, when it came down to it, most of the graft had already been done by dedicated public sector workers, but the symbolic value was vital as well. The image of brooms held up flashed through the web- a sign of peaceful, positive defiance. A true demonstration of the strength of a free internet.

These have been testing times for our liberal democracy. To share information is vital for active participation in our society. If we give in at the first push, our society is neither liberal, nor democratic.


Loz Kaye - Leader Pirate Party UK

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Comments (1)

  1. Riff:
    Aug 15, 2011 at 04:13 PM

    Of course the government wants to turn of social media when it suits them. Never mind that they laud it when social media forments revolution in the middle east, but they realised then they cannot control it and so it must be stopped. Successive governments have a history of attempting to control new communications - because they fear them. And so they should!

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By Loz Kaye on Aug 15, 2011

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