Can British Government Ban Social Media During Crisis?

Was it only a matter of time? British government considers banning social media during “social unrest”.

Was it only a matter of time? British government considers banning social media during “social unrest”.

Following the London riots August 6th to August 11th 2011, Prime Minister David Cameron was forced to cut his vacation short and return for an emergency meeting of Parliament. His first order of business? Consider whether social media can be “turned off” during times of unrest.

While Twitter, Tumblr, Flickr and Facebook all played roles during the riots, the government’s main social media concern was texting and Blackberry Messenger. It is said that these two technologies were used to organize, rally, and encourage criminal behavior throughout the last week. In a statement, Mr. Cameron notes:

“Mr Speaker, everyone watching these horrific actions will be stuck by how they were organised via social media.

Free flow of information can be used for good. But it can also be used for ill.

And when people are using social media for violence we need to stop them.

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.”

In other, less politically charged words, the Prime Minister is looking into whether or not it is possible – in terms of technology, law, and ethics – to shut down social media in times of crisis. According to the BBC, Home Secretary Theresa May is rumoured to be meeting with people from Facebook, Twitter, and RIM to talk about their responsibilities during “times of unrest”.

Social media isn’t the only area of emphasis for Mr. Cameron, he further noted: “I can announce today that we are going to give the police the discretion to remove face coverings under any circumstances where there is reasonable suspicion that they are related to criminal activity … And on dealing with crowds, we are also looking at the use of existing dispersal powers and whether any wider power of curfew is necessary.”

Not a good day for civil liberty in London. The question is: are the measures necessary? When it comes to social media, the message seems to be that technology is causing the authorities huge problems. Rather than deal with underlying issues or work with certain groups, the government would rather just “shut the system off.”

After Egypt, was it only a matter of time before western countries began to question whether or not they can “stop” social media during times of unrest? It is highly likely that social media did play a role in organizing and rallying certain groups of people who participated in criminal activity. On the other hand, whatever happened to civil liberty? Who gets to decide if a tweet is “inciting criminal activity”?  It is an undeniably slippery slope.

Senior fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, John Basset in a statement to Reuters believe it best to resist such radical action: “The use of social media in the unrest looks like a game-changer. But any attempt to exert state control over social media looks likely to fail.”