There are calls for the blocking of mobile phones and social networks during times of civil disobedience. We look at the pros and cons of taking this action
After the recent riots in England, Parliament was recalled for a debate, during which Prime Minister David Cameron said he was looking 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”.
Following a meeting of the Home Office and technology companies, the Government backed down, saying it did not intend to restrict the companies’ services. We’ll take a look at the background and find out what’s likely to happen now.
The riots and looting that had taken place over the previous few days had been organised, in part, using technology. People using Blackberry mobile phones were able to send out details of areas to target, in relative secrecy, because Blackberry’s Messenger service (BBM) is secure, unlike text messages and email, so it can’t be read by the authorities. BBM also has the advantage of not costing anything per message, making it attractive to young people on limited budgets.
The social networks Twitter and Facebook were also fingered by some politicians and commentators as having contributed to the trouble. The Daily Mail reported that “There was concern that the disturbances were fanned by Twitter, with some of those taking part posting inflammatory comments from the scene and calling for reinforcements.”
However, social networks were also used for good causes: the Twitter account ‘@riotcleanup’, which helped to organise clean-up crews, quickly gained over 70,000 followers (it had 77,103 at the time of writing, a month later).
A newspaper investigation of 2.5 million riot-related Twitter posts suggested more users were using it to follow news or avoid riot-hit areas than cause trouble.
After Mr Cameron spoke in Parliament on 10 August, Conservative MP Louise Mensch posted on Twitter that police in her constituency had wasted time and resources answering false alarms that had been spread by social-media rumours.
She then made a controversial suggestion: “Twitter regularly down for maintenance and if in a major national emergency police think Twitter and Facebook should take an hour off? So be it. I don’t have a problem with a brief temporary shutdown of social media just as I don’t have a problem with a brief road or rail closure.”
The same day, a similar scenario played out in San Francisco. The local rail service, Bart (Bay Area Rapid Transit), shut down mobile phone service on its network.
Organisers of a local protest had said they would be using mobile phones to organise their actions, and Bart said in a statement: “A civil disturbance during commute times at busy downtown San Francisco stations could lead to platform overcrowding and unsafe conditions for Bart customers, employees and demonstrators. Bart temporarily interrupted service at select Bart stations as one of many tactics to ensure the safety of everyone on the platform.”
The idea to shut down websites wasn’t universally welcomed. A press officer from Sussex Police pointed out that police forces had been using Twitter to dispel rumours during the riots, and former Deputy Prime Minister Lord Prescott highlighted Twitter users who had used the service to contact friends and family or avoid problem areas.
Others pointed out that shutting down websites under the guise of maintenance was something totalitarian regimes would do. Mrs Mensch responded that “nobody is talking about ‘shutting down Twitter’. It’s about listening to police and a couple hours off.”
It’s not clear how a social-network blackout would work in practice. It would be relatively simple for the networks to block particular users, but this has to be done by the networks themselves, not by the Government or police, and would require a great deal of co-operation.
A more widespread restriction can be put in place by blocking addresses that correspond to computers located in the UK. That’s also relatively easy to do either on the Government’s orders or by the networks.
That’s the method used by countries such as Iran, North Korea and pre-revolution Egypt to restrict citizens’ access to the internet. It’s also used by the BBC to prevent non-UK users from using the BBC iPlayer to watch programmes.
Such a ban is easy to achieve but has the disadvantage of cutting off what might be useful communications channels in times of strife. Also, determined users can find ways around such blocks, as people already do in all the aforementioned countries.
After meeting the companies, the Government said it “did not seek any additional powers to close down social-media networks”.
According to The Guardian newspaper, the police acknowledged at the meeting that they needed to do more to work with social networks, with the Metropolitan Police admitting it was “slightly behind” other UK forces in Twitter and Facebook use.
A Facebook representative told The Guardian that the discussion was constructive and that Facebook welcomed what it described as “a dialogue on working together to keep people safe”.
It seems unlikely that the authorities will seek to curb social networks before or during any future civil unrest, because police, Government and industry all broadly agree that they can be used more for good than harm.
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