Do we have a right to use Twitter and Facebook?

In the aftermath of the London riots, Britain’s prime minister has said the government is considering blocking people from using social media such as Twitter and Facebook, and a British MP has compared this kind of shutdown to closing a road or shutting down train service during an emergency. Today in the Wall Street Journal (s nws), a columnist makes effectively the same argument, saying a ban on social media does not violate the principle of freedom of speech, and “techno-utopians” are getting worried about nothing. But are they? Or are these kinds of moves a step on a slippery slope that leads to Chinese-style control over information networks?

A reasonable compromise?

In his WSJ column, Gordon Crovitz says that British prime minister David Cameron and his allies were “widely ridiculed” for suggesting they might shut down access to social media, but argues that such restrictions are justified, and ”permitting peaceful protests while stopping violence seems like a reasonable compromise.” The WSJ columnist notes that the Bay Area Rapid Transit authorities shut off cell service on the system’s platforms because of a threatened protest (which my colleague Erica wrote about last week), and says this was a success because “the world did not end.” Crovitz adds:

[A]ll uses of technology are not equally virtuous. Enthusiasm for technology should not lead to a moral and political relativism that confuses crime with free speech and the British police with authoritarian governments.

Of course, Crovitz doesn’t say how a social-media or cellphone shutdown (or both) would allow the British government — or anyone else, for that matter — to “permit peaceful protests while stopping violence.” Presumably, it would allow people to protest so long as they didn’t want to communicate with each other via the Internet or their cellphones about those peaceful protests. But that’s part of the problem with such an approach: It prevents everyone from using these tools, regardless of their intent.

In other words, the BART blockade prevented people from using their phones for peaceful or even emergency purposes as well as nefarious purposes — all because the agency was afraid of a protest that never actually occurred. Is that a fair trade? What if someone at those stations had been trying to call the hospital or the police?

China and Iran are watching us

Foreign-policy writer Evgeny Morozov has also written a piece in the Wall Street Journal that makes reference to the London riots and the desire of the authorities to shut down or restrict access to communication networks and social-media tools. But in his column, entitled “Repressing the Internet, Western-Style,” Morozov warns that advocates of such behavior should be aware that repressive governments in countries such as China and Iran are watching what Western democracies do, and that every infringement of liberties will be taken as a vindication of their own repressive behavior.

Britain’s prime minister isn’t the only one considering a social-media shutdown. In a series of comments posted to Twitter in the wake of the London riots, MP Louise Mensch said that she sees the shutdown of all social-media and other communication networks as no different from the police closing a road during an emergency. “If in a major national emergency police think Twitter and FB should take an hour off? So be it,” she wrote. “I don’t have a problem with a brief temporary shutdown of social media just as I don’t have a problem with a brief road or rail closure.” She went on to say:

If short, necessary and only used in an emergency, so what. We’d all survive if Twitter shut down for a short while during major riots… Social media isn’t any more important than a train station, a road or a bus service… If riot info and fear is spreading by Facebook & Twitter, shut them off for an hour or two, then restore. World won’t implode.

This kind of argument that “the world didn’t end” or “the world won’t implode” is part of the problem: It encourages us to see such behavior as fine so long as there isn’t a massive negative outcome. But despite Crovitz’s blasé response to the idea, every subsequent shutdown or restriction chips away at important principles like freedom of speech. Do governments have the right to restrict those kinds of things in certain emergency situations? Sure they do. But those situations should be chosen very carefully, and we should force the authorities who do so to justify that choice.

Speech needs to be protected in all its forms

Aren’t these kinds of restrictions just like closing a road, as Louise Mensch argues? No. Public speech, of the kind that social-media tools like Twitter and Facebook allow — not to mention cellphone or other networks — isn’t like driving to the store for a carton of milk, where a mild inconvenience is not a big deal. Advocates of a shutdown like to claim that no one has a right to use Twitter, or that such tools are inconsequential and frivolous, and so a ban doesn’t matter. But restricting speech is wrong, no matter what tool the speaker is using to distribute it, or how silly we think the service is.

In his column, Crovitz says that “the kind of thuggish behavior on display in Britain… is often just below the surface of civilized societies.” He’s right. But then, so is the urge of governments and other authorities to smother or restrict speech — purely for peace-keeping purposes, of course, and in the interests of public safety. He and Louise Mensch may be convinced that they know where to draw the line, but history has shown us it’s all too easy to blur that line, and difficult to stop that process once it begins.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Garry Knight and Jennie Moo