So, it was all for nothing? After weeks of speculation that the U.K government would ask social media sites to participate in shutdowns during times of crisis, the government seeks no special powers.
Three weeks ago, London saw almost a full week of riots that caused damage, injury and death. Following the incident, British Prime Minister, David Cameron, placed some of the blame on social media, arguing that “[e}veryone 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.”
The statement was supported by many, including Conservative MP Louise Mensch who argued that shutting down social media was more or less the same as a road closure. However, not everyone was so keen. Many freedom of speech and Internet ethics advocates were unimpressed by the call to shutdown social media sites.
Last Thursday, August 18th 2011, Home Secretary Theresa May called a Home office summit and invited not only the Met police and civil servants, but also representatives from Research In Motion (the makers of Black Berry), Twitter, and Facebook. Prior to the meeting, it was reported by The Guardian that May was likely to ask for concessions from the social media giants during times of crisis; however, it was expected that all the companies would refuse such concessions.
On Friday, August 19th, it turned out that May did not request additional powers in times of crisis. According to a statement from Facebook, May “set the tone clearly that we were not there to discuss restricting Internet services.” The statement continued: “We welcome the fact that this was a dialogue about working together to keep people safe rather than about imposing new restrictions on Internet services.”
Concurrent with Facebook’s statements throughout the UK riots, and the aftermath of the event, Facebook also noted: “When we are dealing with situations that are heightened or sensitive such as the U.K. riots, then content relating to this specific issue is prioritized. As a result, the team works around the clock to ensure that take-down times for such content is decreased and content that straddles the line of acceptability is closely monitored.”
After the meeting, the government stated that it: “looked at how law enforcement and the networks can build on the existing relationships and cooperation to crack down on the networks being used for criminal behavior.”
After significant speculation on the matter, it feels like a somewhat anti-climatic finish. However, the debate leading up to the meeting is an important moment in social media’s history, particularly as it pertains to freedom of speech and ethics. It has been argued that if the government requested shutdowns, and the social media companies agreed, it would set a precedent for future crises not just in the UK but around the globe. This also sets a precedent. The public and social media giants were very clear: social media shutdowns are censorship and will not be taken lightly.