Social Media Access and the London Riots

Just a quick post, as I caught this while browsing the UK riot coverage this morning. The BBC is reporting that British parliament is thinking about whether it would be “right and possible” to limit access to social media during times of unrest. Twitter, Facebook, and Blackberry Messenger have been cited as major influences on the rioters’ ability to organize, and apparently Home Secretary Theresa May is meeting representatives from each of these companies to talk about their “obligations during times of unrest”. Given the role of social media in the recent Arab Spring uprisings, and the attempts by government to shut down access as a result, such suggestions from British Prime Minister David Cameron are obviously concerning.

Rights campaigner Jim Killock of the Open Rights Group is quoted in the article making some important points:

Who would decide whether texts or tweets constituted an incitement to disorder? If not the courts, then there could be abuses by private companies and police. He also pointed out that “[a]ny government policy to shut down networks deprived citizens of a right to secure communication and undermined the privacy required by a society that valued free speech”.

Given that the government was firm that the army would not be brought in to deal with rioters, the lack of use of water cannons and rubber bullets, and the fact that David Cameron has also stood by proposed cuts to the number of police officers in London, is there some likelihood that the warnings of rights activists will be heeded? Given how surveillance-heavy the UK is, I am not so sure. However, so long as the length and spread of the riots is being blamed on police tactics, perhaps discussions of restrictions to social media access will not receive too much attention?

This is what academic Myriam Dunn Cavelty terms a “policy window”- an event which creates an opportunity through which ‘security professionals’ can gain attention and support for their security arguments, framing the event in a specific way, and prompting certain security responses. It will be important to watch and see which players with their various motivations capitalize on this opportunity to advance their own cause.

EDIT: And there it is- China takes the UK’s discussion of social media censorship as validation of its own Great Firewall. You can’t expect to hold the moral upper hand and chastise China’s tactics to promote social solidarity and then go ahead and do it yourself. It doesn’t matter if you argue how ‘different’ each situation is. Really it’s just a matter of degree, and the perhaps small likelihood that the UK will have oversight which will discourage abuse of these powers.