Blogs & Comment

Banning social media will only pour gas on the riot fires

Taking aim at social media is a textbook case of trying to shoot the messenger.

So, in the wake of the London riots, UK Prime Minister David Cameron is looking into shutting down social media access for people suspected of using it to engage in criminal activity. Such a bone-headed idea provokes two reactions: yeah, good luck with that, and talk about pouring gasoline on the fire.

First, here’s a video of Cameron’s comments in Parliament on Thursday morning:

To follow up, the government will apparently be meeting with representatives from Facebook, Twitter and BlackBerry to discuss their “responsibilities” during such riots.

As several journalists and bloggers including my friend Mathew Ingram have already pointed out, taking aim at social media is a textbook case of trying to shoot the messenger. It’s not yet clear whether the likes of Twitter or Facebook could be shut down in a specific locale, or whether the companies themselves would be willing to play ball (Twitter has said it is generally opposed to doing so, although when push comes to shove we’ve seen numerous other companies acquiesce to government demands). But cutting off access won’t do much to solve the real problem, which is that a bunch of people are intent on causing mayhem.

Shut down Twitter and BBM and they’ll turn to text messages or calling each other on their cellphones. Shut those down and they’ll find other ways, maybe carrier pigeons or smoke signals. Maybe they’ll even use good old-fashioned landlines. Britain is already a “surveillance society” with London having cameras virtually everywhere—if that didn’t prevent the riots, how will cutting off Twitter?

Clamping down on any communications options will slide the U.K. even further down the freedom-of-speech slope. How will “criminal intent” on social networks be proven? Aren’t people innocent until proven guilty—and more to the point, aren’t they innocent until they’ve actually committed a crime? Is talking about doing something bad nine-tenths of the law? Maybe, maybe not. Lawyers will doubtlessly spend years arguing about it in courts.

Most importantly, further eroding civil liberties is likely to fuel what I believe to be the underlying cause of the unrest that’s popping up around the globe: a deep frustration with a system that is seeing the world’s growing wealth increasingly controlled by fewer and fewer people. Like I mentioned the other day, that system may have worked in the past but since the wide-scale rise of the Internet over the past 20 years, the masses are more aware of what they don’t have than ever before. And they’re not happy about it. Taking away more of their rights is only going to make them madder.

People are rioting in London, Vancouver, Toronto, Tunisia, Egypt, Iran and other places for different reasons. That awareness, though, is universal wherever people are using the Internet. The music, movie and other entertainment industries have already faced their Internet-driven reckonings; it’s now governments’ turns. We could consider this rash of riots the Napster of human governance.

Rather than cracking down on rioters, governments should be listening to them. That may sound bleeding-heart, but it’s the only way to stop them. Kicking them off Twitter is not going to do it.