Should Access to Social Media Ever Be Limited?

Governments contemplate shutting networks down in times of trouble

5 min read

Should Access to Social Media Ever Be Limited?

The BBC reported over the weekend that UK Home Secretary Theresa May has asked representatives from Facebook, Twitter and Research in Motion (RIM) to meet with her on Thursday to discuss the English riots that took place two weeks ago. So far, Facebook and BlackBerry-maker RIM have agreed to attend according to a ZDNet article this morning. Twitter has not said whether it will attend or not.

The purpose of the meeting is said to concern what to do—if anything—about the use (some say abuse) of social media during times of violent trouble, as well as unfettered access to it afterwards. During the riots, for example, some of those taking part were said to have used BlackBerry's Messenger Service to organize and coordinate their activities, including attacks on police, because the messages sent through the service are untraceable. Twitter and Facebook were said to be used in a similar fashion. Some one-third of British teenagers are said to own a BlackBerry.

In the light of these claims, the UK Prime Minister David Cameron told Parliament during a speech while the rioting was still continuing:

"... 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 Web sites and services when we know they are plotting violence, disorder, and criminality. I have also asked the police if they need any other new powers."

Prime Minister Cameron's desire to be able to shut down social media immediately provoked both applause as well as derision. For example, some Liberal-Democrats politicians—who are members of PM Cameron's ruling coalition—have called the move a "knee-jerk" reaction to the situation. They also warned of a political split over the issue, especially over what they view are the harsh penalties for inciting disorder via social-networking  sites. For example, last week two men were sentenced to four years in jail each after admitting they tried to use Facebook to incite others to riot. In both cases, though, no one seemed to have followed their calls for illegal action.

Other organizations, like the Open Rights Group, which says it campaigns "to preserve and promote your rights in the digital age" also has been critical of Prime Minister Cameron's position. It has called his move "unwarranted" and has created an online petition to oppose it.

Still, others are supportive of a government's authority to sever the public's links with social media sites during times of trouble, even though it invites comparison with more authoritarian regimes. For instance, Conservative MP Louise Mensch asked why, if police can shut down roads in an emergency, they can't shut down social media sites? Scotland Yard was reported to have considered shutting down Twitter during the riots but found out that it had no legal authority to do so.

While this debate has been raging in the UK, the management of the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system decided to do just that on the 12th of August. On that day, BART officials decided to shut off all wireless service to thwart a planned protest against a BART policeman's shooting of a homeless man in July. BART says in a letter to its riders it posted on its Web site over the weekend that it suspended wireless service because it had concluded "that the safety of the BART system would be compromised" by the protest.

BART's actions, as discussed in Spectrum's Steven Cherry's podcast interview with Eva Galperin, who works at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, has sparked protests of its own, as well as an investigation by the Federal Communications Commission. Hackers have successfully attacked BART twice in the past week in protest of the wireless cutoff. More protests against BART for both the shooting as well as the wireless shutdown are also said to be planned today.

In conjunction with a call to possibly block social media, the UK's Prime Minister Cameron also announced that the authorities would use the images from the thousands of CCTV cameras available to the police in London and elsewhere to bring rioters to book. He reiterated in his speech to Parliament that:

"We are making technology work for us, by capturing the images of the perpetrators on CCTV—so even if they haven't yet been arrested, their faces are known and they will not escape the law. And as I said yesterday, no phoney human rights concerns about publishing photographs will get in the way of bringing these criminals to justice."

The UK police has been releasing images and video of alleged rioters in hopes that the public can identify them. There were some thoughts that such a move might violate the 1998 Human Rights Act but this seems even to UK human rights lawyers unlikely to be the case.

However, Cameron's statement concerning the use of CCTV camera footage did once again bring to the fore the issue of whether the extensive use of CCTVs might also have been a contributing factor in the rioting. For years, the UK has used CCTV cameras as a means to reduce both the number of police as well as the need for police to do their traditional "walking the beat." Even though CCTV cameras have been shown to be generally ineffective in deterring crime (or riots) or solving crimes, their continued use throughout the UK remains unabated. Governments like to claim that CCTV cameras make people "feel safer," which naturally leads to more cameras.

The debate that is now occurring is whether the lack of regular police interaction with the neighborhoods they are protecting has created "a vacuum of authority in public space." This is what US police departments found after they moved towards patrolling city neighborhoods in police cars versus doing it on foot. As a result, US police departments have gone back to more foot patrols. According to Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, only 12 percent of police time is now spent patrolling the street. An editorial in the Financial Times noted that:

"This endemic overreliance on [CCTV] technology also deforms policing culture: officers lose any sense that their job is to deter crime by their presence alone, rather than just to react. This attitude was all too apparent after the riots when officers, and then the home secretary, seemed puzzled that the public was not satisfied with assurances that (thanks to CCTV) most of the looters would be caught."

The debate over the use of CCTV cameras in place of police will likely be intensifying over the coming months since Prime Minister Cameron is still intent on imposing cuts of 20 percent on the police, even in the wake of the rioting. CCTV cameras will undoubtedly be seen as a way to make up for the loss of policeman.

Catching all the looters via CCTV won't be easy, either. A story at the Atlantic estimates that tens of thousands of hours of CCTV video in London alone will need to be reviewed. Even with the face-recognition software that Scotland Yard and the British Transport Police are using to scan the videos and compare them against its databases (and presumably targeted social media sites), it is going to take a while to complete.

So, with this as background, should governments—democratic or not—have the authority to shut down access to social media sites (or wireless service) in times of trouble? Or is allowing that authority the beginning of a slippery slope that can be used by governments anywhere to justify their interruption for other reasons under the pretext of impending trouble?

Would it do any good anyway? There have been flash mob attacks reported across the US this summer. How effective would restricting access to social media be in stopping these, and what about the collateral damage to those not involved but still negatively affected, like those unlucky BART riders a few weeks back? 

Should access to social media be considered a fundamental human right, or is that just a techno-utopian dream bubble that the requirement for public safety should be able to pop?

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