On Friday, the Guardian reports, two young men were arrested in Colchester, charged with ‘encouraging or assisting in the commission of an offense’ after trying to organise a mass water fight via BlackBerry Messenger and Facebook. Both men will appear before a magistrate at the beginning of next month.
There are a number of concerns to point out in this case. The first is that the UK can now put itself along side Iran as a state willing to prosecute for taking part in public water fights. Iran earned this status earlier in the month after the morality police deemed participants to have behaved ‘abnormally’ and disobeying Islamic principals, leading to a series of arrests. This was all despite the fact that no cases of violence resulted and people enjoyed the three-hour escape from 40 degree heat. A London-based Iranian blogger wrote that one of the reasons the Iranian government may have been so heavy-handed with this event was the fact that it was organised via social media, which poses a threat to the government’s regime.
The second issue is that this sentiment isn’t unfamiliar in the UK right now. After the UK riots last week, Cameron made a number of statements in the emergency session of Parliament regarding the threat posed by social media. He said that there was a need to investigate whether social media sites were deemed to have contributed to criminal behaviour and if shutting them down temporarily was a viable solution to curbing the violence. BBM, widely determined to be the biggest forum by which the rioters communicated, was also offered up in the statements and has been mentioned repeatedly as its users communicate in relative privacy.
In the case of the Colchester boys and the water fight, it may be becoming obvious that these are no longer suggestions. First the pre-emptive arrest of these boys when the police should be dealing with rioters that actually committed crimes is unnecessary. Does the UK really want to be compared with Iran in shutting down members of the public peacefully organising and having fun?
But, more seriously, these young men’s use of social media and BBM to spread word of the event shows police investigators may already be watching BBM, which would be a gross violation of privacy. As with text messages, the police should have to obtain a warrant to monitor your private communication, which BBM is. As we’ve said in previous posts in the last week, social media is, to a large degree, in the public domain and shutting down these forums would violate a number of basic freedoms. But to go beyond that and restrict private communication such as BBM or text messages without a warrant is a violation of privacy. The government needs to come to grips with its ability to prevent crime rather than simply prosecute it and that restricting the rights and freedoms of all to prevent crimes being committed by a few is simply a step too far and wrong.