Andrew Lilico: Should social media be shut down during social disturbances?
Let's see. Remember this?
"The Egyptian government now has shut down the internet and telephone communication systems, mobile phones and that includes Facebook, Twitter and other forms of social networks to undermine the protesters."
Now what was it that the British government said? Wasn't it something along the lines of: "Well, although we disagree with the Egyptian government and consider the protestors have the right to make themselves heard, shutting down social media is, of course, a perfectly legitimate step during periods of social unrest." Oops, sorry. That wasn't what we said at all. What we actually said was:
"there is no doubt that social networking sites have played an important role, particularly in Tunisia. That was very apparent from the young people I met and talked to there, many of whom, especially the young women, had taken part in the revolution on social networking sites rather than out in the streets. They were very proud of the way that they had co-ordinated their messages in the days before the revolution in order to intensify the action and demonstrations that took place. Those sites have played an important role and it is something that we should be positive about overall. The world is changing in a very significant way: people of all ages have access to communicating in that way and it is important that their freedom to do so is preserved. One way in which the Egyptian authorities have gone wrong in the past couple of weeks has been in trying to suppress access to the internet and misuse mobile telephone networks. People now have the right to use those things in a relatively open way."
Now there is, of course, a cosmetic difference between #protestintahrir and #smashstuffupintottenham. Indeed, those that have coordinated any violence during the London riots via social media may have made themselves vulnerable to a charge of "riot" - a serious offence that requires proof of common purpose amongst 12 or more persons (something that would ordinarily be very difficult to prove but to which evidence of use of social media for coordination would potentially be important). There is no objection, of course, to the police investigating social media for evidence of such coordination. Neither, obviously, is there any objection to the police inspecting social media to get advance notice of potential riots.
But that is not what is being proposed now. The Prime Minister has said the government is reviewing whether social media should be shut down during social disturbances (indeed "suspected rioters" might be banned from using social media altogether, without even being convicted of anything!). Obviously that can't just be a matter of shutting down sites where people specifically discuss rioting. Otherwise people simply won't use that word on social media - they will simply talk of "protesting" or the like.
So the choice is this: either shutting down social media during periods of social unrest is a legitimate tool. of government policy, to try to maintain order (as the government now maintains), or it is not (as the government maintained when Egypt did it). There is no "third way". The government is either wrong now or it was wrong then. Which is it?