In his statement to Parliament, the Prime Minister floated the idea of giving the relevant authorities the power to suspend communication networks to prevent repeats of the violent disorder that erupted earlier this week across England. The role of Twitter, Facebook and Blackberry’s instant messenger service will now be scrutinised by politicians to better understand their role in the riots, and to determine whether the authorities need powers to prevent such communication in future.
“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.”
I wrote a couple of days ago about the costs and benefits of rioting, noting that modern communication techniques have reduced the perceived costs to rioters of their actions. It is understandable that the government is looking at any and every method possible of preventing the riots from occurring again, if only to look vaguely like it is in control of events.
Yes, the events of the last few days have proved that communication networks can be used for ill.
But those events have also proven that the very same communication networks can be used for good – the Riot Clean Up movement is a good example. Social media has also been an important tool in the police’s ability to predict where trouble is likely to occur and to manage resources effectively.
But more importantly than that, the events of the last few days have not proven that politicians or the police will be able to discern appropriately between communication that supports acts of illegality and communication that supports legitimate acts of protest, or defiance. The powers the PM proposes could be used by the police and politicians to prevent a march against government policy, for example, should they decide that there is a reasonable prospect of “disorder” (howsoever defined).
That is troubling.
This week’s riots were extreme. But introducing powers to curb the ability of the people to communicate with one another would be extreme in response.
More than that, those powers would fail to address any of the root causes of the aggression and wanton criminality we witnessed in the last few days.
Blackberry’s instant messaging service facilitated the riots. It didn’t cause them.
Should David Cameron succeed in introducing such powers, he would quickly move from democrat to despot, arming himself with weaponry more commonly deployed in dictatorships.
That would be a devastating epilogue to a difficult week for Britain.
“If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.” – Noam Chomsky.
Alex Baker is Secretary of the Young Fabians and Editor of the Young Fabian Blog