Social media has been one of the hottest issues in the UK riots this week. In a blog post on Tuesday, I discussed the knee-jerk reaction to the role social media has played in the communication between rioters and looters on the streets of cities across the UK. Our initial fears raised when we heard the first calls to limit social media turned out to be more realistic than we originally thought as people looked to stop the violence and thuggery. Now concrete statements by government officials have indicated that they believe such a suggestion was within their remit. This is an unacceptable step, depriving citizens of their rights to freedom of speech and a slippery slope to more invasive, authoritarian-style governance.
And yet, the response from Government seems to want just that. Home Secretary Theresa May, said she would meet with representatives of social media groups like Twitter and Blackberry to discuss the realities of such a plan. And at yesterday’s emergency recall of Parliament, the Prime Minister said:
“Mr Speaker, everyone watching these horrific actions will be stuck by how they were organised via social media. 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.”
This is simply shocking. In China and the Middle East, social media has been a forum calling for respect of civil liberties, democracy and rights for individuals in nations stripped of their freedoms. Britain has been under the assumption that it possesses basic fundamental values of privacy and rights to free speech for some time now. Statements indicating a move towards limiting those values is shocking, and characteristically un-British.
The response on Twitter and Facebook since the outbreak of the riots has been, for the most part, anything but encouraging of the violence. And users are, with few exceptions, law-abiding and denounce the looters as thugs and criminals. Curtailing the rights of all to stop the actions of a few is not a justification. Information posted on public-access social networking sites are open to the police to comb for information with very few limitations. These are resources the police could use if they allow them to stay open.
The government knows that the move to shut these down would be met with great resistance. Twitter users responded sharply to the Prime Minister’s words yesterday, and the Government would do well to take note of this. Public opinion at the moment is asking for restored order, and it is the responsibility of government is to provide that. However, to do so by seizing the basic rights and liberties of of its citizens is wrong.