It's true, when there are moments of national crisis governments react impulsively and often without level headed thinking (doesn't take a crisis to be honest). And the crisis not only leaves victims in its immediate wake, but the policies engendered affect entire nations for years to come. Look at Septmeber 11th, and the surge in Terrorist Acts passed by 'democratic' governments across the world, supplying authorities with unprecented power to arrest and detain suspects for extended periods of time. Or more pertinently look at the Arab uprisings and the decision of Middle Eastern leaders to ban mobile communication and social media to help take control of peaceful riots.
When David Cameron announced last week that the government is 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', there were echoes of Egypt's late Mubarak and indeed other authoritarian regimes: stop people communicating. Did he really say that? I thought we condemend China's banning of Twitter and I thought we objected to Saudi Arabia's restriction of BBM networks on innocent protestors. So what would make us any different to these countries?
A blanket ban on these tools places individuals with intent to crime and the innocent in one cell, which lets be honest, cells are never what law abiding citizens want to be thrown into. It also demonstrates a grave lack of foresight and understanding of social media by our government, as well as the predictability of blaming social media as opposed to the cultural and political failures. But this post is not so much a political statement, I want to draw attention to the value of social media in its unabridged form.
Social media has become one of the strongest pillars in a democracy because it assists the progress of freedom of speech. It allows people to freely exchange their opinions about anything and everything (within reason) and has widely become a force for good. Nonetheless, the UK riots has shown that social media can also accelerate evil and rightly this needs to be addressed. Some tough decisions need to be made, but to enter the discussion with intent to ban social media tools is alarming and typical reactionary thinking.
Instead, the government really need to understand that the virtual world is becoming a replication of our physical world, with people establishing their communities online with equal importance to their phyisical ones. And the tools which mobilised hundreds of criminals were simultaneaously used to bring communities together and as the riots showed, unify millions of people to back the authorities and perform cleanup operations. And critically people were using Twitter to help people in the effected areas to stay clear. I even read a Tweet calling for those physically impaired in need of assistance to drop a recognised hahstag. Is a blanket ban really sensible governance?
The key difference Mr Cameron should note is the digital world is faster to the physical world, indeed technology speeds everything. So the police will do well to understand how they can use this speed to their advantage: if rioters can mobilise faster with social media then surely there is something to be learnt here. We also know from the real world that to ban something, does not mean to stop something per se. In most cases it develops underground where it becomes even harder to monitor.
BlackBerry Messenger emerged as the main tool being used on the streets. Whilst this meant rioters could communicate quickly it has also left the police with a wealth of data, helping identify the perpetrators. There's questions whether this data should be available to the police but when such prominent evidence exists we have to weigh carefully the infringement of personal data vs. catching and prosecuting criminals at large. I think most people would be happy for the govenment to act on this.
However, to assume banning BBM and social media would conclusively help the authorities tackle widespread unrest is amongst other things, wishful. The point is there's a duty to police public areas, and online is no different. Policing public areas is not about banning communication, its about having a presence and its about upholding and guarding the public's freedom against those wishing to abuse it.
Therefore, what the government needs to do now is look at how social media mobilised and tracked these criminals. Understand that the very tools they used can be used to identify, trace and uncover disaffected youths, as long as the data is handled responsibly. It could even be used to start a dialogue with them. Also draw attention to the community spirit which transcended online through these tools, to help those affected. Ultimately, realise that things happen quicker in the virtual world and the police will need to adapt to this if they are to remain in control. The physical world needs to play catch-up, but cutting the legs off its virtual friend, is frankly foul play.