Social media has drawn heavy scrutiny in the U.K from the government, and if the riots continue, Prime Minister David Cameron may push for the drastic step of blocking certain internet communication platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and Blackberry instant messenger.
Wired is reporting that P.M. Cameron has been considering the "pre-crime" blocking of social media websites to avert more riots, and allow authorities to catch up with arrests of suspects shown rioting on surveillance camera footage or inciting violence through social media. Prime Minister Cameron addressed the British House of Commons Thursday, saying:
“Free flow of information can be used for good. But it can also be used for ill. So we 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.”
This step is not a novel idea, but would be the first time a major western power has taken the drastic measure. In its last gasps of power, the regime of Hosni Mubarak shuttered Twitter in Egypt, though it didn't prevent Hosni from ending up in a cage. Twitter took center stage in a short-lived attempt to protest a stolen election in Iran in 2009, but was quickly stamped out. As many of those protestors found out, you can tweet a photo of your protest, but in an authoritarian state, it will likely paint a digital bullseye on your back.
Social media has indeed played a role in some of the most seismic political changes of the past 10 years, including the Egyptian revolution, but now we are seeing the flip side of this remarkable technology. Just as the internet has become an artery of the global jihad, social media sites are a tool to rally the masses -- whether for peaceful protest or destructive, anarchic riots. And we now have proof this is as true in London as it is in Cairo.
Some in the U.S. may look at this phenomenon and think "why should we care?"
Many U.S. pundits have criticized the British welfare state, and pointed to lax liberal European policies on everything from immigration to crime as reasons for the unrest. Some consider the U.S. is hardly a free market, capitalist utopia -- with 45 million Americans on foodstamps, and 50% of our citizens not paying a dime to the federal government in taxes each year. So arguably, many of the factors that are at play for the riots in the U.K., are also at play for those of us across the pond.
But, would the U.S. government ever be so brazen as to cut off our access to online communications?
Earlier today, police in San Francisco jammed cell phone communications to prevent planned protests there. And many of you might recall the "Internet Kill Switch" bill that Congress bandied about earlier this year. It would allow the president to unilaterally shut down the internet -- and only because he says so. This goes a few steps beyond targeting merely one social media site -- which is all the more reason to believe the U.S. could be capable of cutting its citizens off from various modes of communication.
In this brave new world of technology and the state, we have been trained to constantly worry about an individual with a backpack bomb, or a car full or fertilizer. Today, governments face the reality that anyone with an internet connection can incite a mob and shake the very foundations of society. The U.S., at some point, may face this threat, but in doing so will it go too far?
As the U.K. looks to reassert control over its own people, it perhaps should strike a note of caution here at home. In order to protect citizens from each other, a once great empire and staunch ally may find itself claiming powers generally held only by tyrants.
Perhaps Americans should begin to watch events in the U.K not as idle curiosity, but a possible prologue.