British Prime Minister David Cameron’s threat of blocking social media sites and BlackBerry Messenger service in reaction to rioting in London and surrounding cities is pure folly.
The logic of cutting off everyone’s access to communication tools because a few criminals are making use of them is bollocks. Imagine if the rioters used Molotov cocktails in their destructive experts – would a ban on the sale of liquor be considered? Also, it is rare to hear suggestions of gun bans after shootings take place.
Cameron should be on his back foot after suggesting that a liberal democratic government would go so far as to limit the communications of its citizens. Such practices might be expected in countries with more authoritarian regimes, but considering it in the birthplace of the Westminster parliamentary system is double Dutch. Yet that is exactly what British home secretary Theresa May will discuss with Facebook, Twitter and Research in Motion in coming days.
Though it’s acknowledged that these services have been used by rioters to stay one step ahead of the police, cutting them off is not likely to restore London’s usual conservative tranquility. Rather, police can work with these technology companies to track down suspects and limit the impact of riotous messages.
Research in Motion already agreed earlier this week to assist London bobbies with their investigations. It is standard procedure for communications companies to assist police when information is requested for the purposes of a criminal investigation, and this incident is no different. Facebook has also taken steps to remove threats of violence from its site, removing the rubbish while allowing Londoners to console each other in a harrowing time.
Indeed, if Britain does cut social services off from Londoners, they will be curtailing many positive responses to the riots. Take for example the Twitter account @Riotcleanup that launched early Tuesday – it has gathered more than 86,000 followers, mostly volunteers looking to help tidy the streets after rioters go on the warpath.
No doubt British authorities are in a sticky wicket. Allow communications channels to remain open, and they risk more riots being organized effectively. Close it down, and they’ll endure the backlash of decent citizens that use these services every day.
But the most likely outcome of a shutdown is that the good guys suffer while the criminals find new ways to wreak havoc, with the smug satisfaction that they have impacted society. A gang of youth that are highly motivated to commit crime won’t simply stop when a technical barrier is put in their way. They will find a way around the blockage (as grassroots protest movements have done in the past) using proxy servers or IP masking techniques, or they’ll simply move on to organize with another online service.
It’s in the most trying time that a liberal society tests its dedication to freedoms. That’s why Cameron should keep all channels of communication wide open. For England.