UK drops web crackdown – but was it a lucky escape?

London riots, by Alan StantonIn the wake of the riots in Britain, the government drew plenty of flack for suggesting that it might be worth retaining the power to shut down social networking sites to prevent criminals from organizing themselves online.

It was a great piece of political logic. BlackBerry messages had been used by some rioters and people had talked about the riots on Facebook and Twitter — therefore it would be worth considering whether they should be closed down at times of distress. There was little mention of what role text messages, telephone calls, newspaper editorials and TV coverage may have had in helping fuel the spontaneous outbursts of violence that erupted across the country.

To most people, such a reaction made little or no sense. Mathew has previously pointed out that accusing social media was a case of “blaming the tools”, rather than the individuals behind the riots.

But in the end the proposals were merely one facet of a larger, dramatic over-reaction to anything related to the riots. Blaming the tools was just a part of blaming everything possible. And the pushback was even more harsh elsewhere, as the courts exerted their power by giving rioters and pseudo-rioters and even people-who-may-have-known-rioters the most draconian sentences. (One woman who was jailed for five months simply for receiving a pair of shorts stolen during the looting has already had her sentence reduced after an appeal).

Fortunately, calmer heads seem to have prevailed. In a meeting yesterday between government officials, police officers and representatives of Facebook, BlackBerry and Twitter, things seem to have fizzled out.

Downing Street seems to have backed off its earlier stated intention to close the whole thing down. In fact, in a statement, officials seemed to be backtracking some way from their earlier position that the riots had been “organized via social media” and that it was considering “whether it was right to stop people communicating via these websites”.

“The Home Secretary, along with the Culture Secretary and Foreign Office Minister Jeremy Browne, has held a constructive meeting with the Association of Chief Police Officers, the police and representatives from the social media industry. The discussions looked at how law enforcement and the networks can build on the existing relationships and cooperation to crack down on the networks being used for criminal behaviour.”


But perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to celebrate. The original move was obviously wrong-headed, but I can’t help but be concerned that it got so far so quickly. Britain has a habit of pushing through strange laws at moments of weakness, and sometimes it doesn’t take much to get things into the statute books.

It’s particularly chilling when you consider that the evidence and the rhetoric are in pretty much direct opposition here. It’s obvious to many people, but much of the political sphere and the media seems to have ignored that (I have read more pieces claiming “Twitter was the main medium used to organize the riots” than I care to remember). An analysis this week by the Guardian of more than 2.5 million Twitter messages sent over the course of the riots shows a distinct pattern of traffic, with barely any messages about areas before they erupted in violence.

But it was no surprise that the Conservative-led government saw social media as an easy target. The usually-placid English had united against the rioters, with citizens across the nation spitting out mouthfuls of tea over their television sets in surprise as they watched England’s urban centers go up in flame.

They were demanding action… any sort of action. And in the end, it’s much easier to wave your fist at these damnable Internet services than to take on the bigger, intractable problems of civil disconnection, social unrest, economic hardship and increasing inequality.

As long as social media remains an easy-to-blame outlet — popular, easily-demonized, slightly outside the mainstream — it will remain a target. Common sense prevailed this time, but don’t be surprised if the subject comes back again sooner than you expect.