Social Media v. British Riots

Social media has become an integral component of grassroots politics, and has never been so important as in the case of the Arab Spring, where protesters have coordinated their demonstrations and gained support internationally through these resources. However, in the wake of rioting and looting in Britain, Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron asked for a review of social media, questioning whether or not “it would right” to silence social media during moments of national crisis.

According to Reuters, British Home Secretary Theresa May, police officials, and executives from social media websites and companies met to discuss the issue, with the conclusion that no actions will be taken immediately to disrupt the use of social media by citizens. This decision was based partially on the redeeming qualities of social media – a quick BlackBerry message can be sent to warn people where there are disruptions as easily as it can to coordinate criminal activities, but also because it would be a dubious intrusion on civil rights to prevent citizens from communicating with each other.

And this, really, is the crux of the matter. The same debate exists with the iPhone app, Trapster, which enables users to post the locations of live police, photo radar vans, red light and speed cameras, and Checkstops hunting for drunk drivers. The app could be used by those seeking a police-free route so that they can complete their booze cruise in peace, or it can be used by a designated driver who doesn’t particularly wish to go through the hassle of a Checkstop while chauffeuring friends home late at night. The root problem, of course, is not the social media itself, but rather how it is used.

However, there is another important aspect to this debate. Yes, Trapster can be used for questionable reasons. But as it stands, there is a perfectly reasonable reason to avoid police not motivated because one is intent on breaking the law, or because it would be inconvenient to do so. This is, quite simply, that one has an ethical or political aversion to that sort of intrusion by the State. So, instead of being questioned by police, perhaps subjected to a breathalyzer (guilty until proven innocent) a motorist can simply choose to avoid what is rightfully viewed as an invasion of privacy. Indeed, misfiring red light and speed cameras can cause a great deal of hassle for drivers, amply demonstrated by the $13 million refunded by the Alberta government in early 2011 that also saw 140000 convictions tossed out of court.

Which brings us back to social media in the case of the British government. Reuters reports that the BlackBerry Messenger was the social media application of choice because it is relatively secure and private, as compared to a Tweet or Facebook update, where is can be viewed simultaneously by many different parties. And that’s he way it should be. Of course people want to communicate securely, and for the government to seek a way to stop this is, frankly, nothing short of draconian. As a matter of civil rights, it is irrelevant what social media is being used for, and the government has no conceivable or compelling reason to stop citizens from communicating. What they can do is attempt to combat issues as they arise.

In the case of a bank robbery, a fair amount of planning would likely be required. While I have little experience in the matter, one generally conjures up images of chain-smoking bandits congregated in a basement hatching their plot. In order to prevent robberies by coordinated criminals, should governments ban meetings between a certain number of people? Perhaps no more than three, just to be on the safe side? Of course not. The issue – as with social media – has nothing to do with communication, and everything to do with actions. Association, whether for the purposes of a book club or to plan a bank robbery, is an unassailable right, it is the actions that follow that are important.

Communication between citizens, without having to fear the intrusion of government is an equally important right and one that must be preserved such that other rights (assembly and dissent, for example) are preserved. To begin to dismantle the ability of citizens to communicate is essentially a step towards the erosion of our democratic freedoms. As we criticize Internet crackdowns in China, Syria, Egypt and others, we also need to take a close look at our governments, and our political process. Just because our freedoms are more or less protected does not mean that they do not need a vigorous defense whenever threats arise.


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