Blaming the tools: Britain proposes a social-media ban

It seems totalitarian states like Egypt and Libya aren’t the only ones struggling with the impact of social media and the desire to muzzle services like Twitter and Facebook. In the wake of the riots in London, the British government says it’s considering shutting down access to social networks — as well as Research In Motion’s (s rimm) BlackBerry messenger service — and is asking the companies involved to help. Prime Minister David Cameron said not only is his government considering banning individuals from social media if they are suspected of causing disorder, but it has asked Twitter and other providers to take down posts that are contributing to “unrest.”

The British PM also said he has asked the police whether they need any new powers to stop the violence, including the ability to shut down social networks or communications services if they believe these tools are being used to incite unrest. Police in Britain have reportedly already begun arresting people based on their use of social media such as Twitter and Facebook, charging them with suspicion of inciting violence and/or disorder for posting tweets, and photos. In his statement, Cameron said:

[W]e 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.

It’s not clear how the British government plans to identify who is “plotting” to commit violence or criminal acts using social media, however. Would posting a photo of a burning car be enough? Would retweeting someone who admitted to causing violence get a user’s account shut down, or result in questioning by the authorities? The prime minister didn’t say. Meanwhile, British Home Secretary Theresa May is reportedly meeting with Twitter, Facebook and BlackBerry to discuss their “responsibilities” during such events.

Twitter says it won’t remove posts or users

For its part, Twitter has said it has no intention of blocking any users’ accounts or removing their posts. A spokesman> who talked to The Telegraph about the issue referred to a Twitter blog post from earlier this year entitled “The Tweets Must Flow,” in which co-founder Biz Stone and Twitter’s general counsel Alex Macgillivray said: “We don’t always agree with the things people choose to tweet, but we keep the information flowing irrespective of any view we may have about the content.”

Those comments were made during the popular uprisings in Tahrir Square in Egypt, when the Egyptian government shut down access not just to social networks and mobile communications networks, but eventually to the entire Internet: an attempt to smother dissent that ultimately failed, and may have actually accelerated the revolution in that country. Britain’s prime minister and his government would no doubt argue that there is a world of difference between what they are doing and what Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak did, but free-speech advocates aren’t likely to agree.

As we’ve pointed out before, the role that Twitter and other social tools have played in the London riots is identical to the role they played in the uprisings and demonstrations in Tunisia, Egypt and other countries. In other words, they have allowed people to connect with each other and distribute information quickly and easily to tens of thousands of users of these services. That’s the power of real-time networks. Obviously, that has allowed some to spread misinformation and plan acts of violence — but it has also allowed others to correct that information, and to coordinate positive moves as well, such as planning a cleanup detail in the wake of the London riots.

As author and journalism professor Jeff Jarvis has noted in his response to the British prime minister’s comments, democratic governments have to be very careful in making moves that curtail free speech, even if they think their motivation is justified. And as others have pointed out, Britain is already on what many believe is the wrong side of the freedom of speech issue in other ways — including its support for so-called “super-injunctions” that restrict the publication of certain information about court cases in that country, and in some cases have resulted in bans on using social media.

Why not crack down on telephones too?

If social-media tools such as Twitter and Facebook hadn’t been invented yet, would Britain’s prime minister be considering a crackdown on telephone use (as author Douglas Adams once mentioned), or the publication of images on blogs or websites? Would the British police be questioning or arresting people for discussing the unrest and violence in bars or the public square? That seems unlikely (although not impossible). But the British government’s apparent willingness to consider shutting down or blocking access to Twitter and BlackBerry’s BBM falls into the same category.

Fundamentally, these tools are used for what amounts to public speech. That speech can be about violence and where a mob should go next to burn something, or it can be about how to overthrow a dictator. It can be about images of disorder and calls for looting, or it can be about how to organize a cleanup crew. It may be tempting to smother that kind of speech when a government feels it is under siege, as Britain seems to feel that it is. But doing this represents nothing less than an attack on the entire concept of freedom of speech, and that has some frightening consequences for any democracy.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Jennifer Moo and Petteri Sulonen